Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nature’s Kool-Aid

If this were Vermont, we’d be saying, “It’s sugarin’ time!” We’ve been having those fluctuating temperatures—freezing nights, warm and sunny days—that make the trees start pumping sap.

Sap is like natural Kool-Aid for critters. Maples, of course, but other trees, too. Including our black walnut. The first thing we saw was a wet spot on the bark, about chest-high.

Closer inspection revealed a horizontal row of about fifteen small round holes, each about two inches from the next. Most were dripping sap.

If you taste it, it’s pretty much like water. This is sweet?

But you’re not the one drilling the holes, and neither are you the one to be attracted to it.

It was not a mystery to us what bird had drilled the holes. But it had been years since I’d actually seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).

This year, we saw him! (Look carefully!)

I’d forgotten how well sapsuckers blend in with their background, which is almost inevitably the patch of bark that they have darkened by the moisture caused by the dripping. It’s pretty neat how they blend in. And they’re fast workers!

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers do this: They tap holes into trees from which sap drips. They drink the sweet fluid, using their brushlike tongues. Which is pretty much like drinking Kool-Aid, nutritionally speaking.

But wait! They get some protein out of the deal, too! The sap is also a lure for ants. Even at this time of year, ants, on warm days, send out scouts to make sure that potential food sources aren’t going unexploited.

And because ants are everywhere, they certainly find the patch of sugary water seeping down the bark, and immediately send out workers to drink it and carry it back to the nest.

Thus, with the ants milling around the sap wells, the sapsucker has the opportunity to grab ants that are bloated with sap. Or, I’ll bet Mr. Sapsucker can simply grab ants and smear them around in the tree-juice, like sopping biscuits and gravy. (Don’t you think?) Anyway, that’s protein and sugar! Dee-liss-yuss!

While the party is swinging, others come to enjoy the punchbowl, too. Other woodpeckers, I understand, are attracted to the sugar water and (no doubt) to the baited ants as well. I’ve read that sapsuckers vigorously guard their sap wells, but ours leaves for hours at a time. Look at this!

It was pretty cute to see this little fella clinging to the side of the tree, upside-down, right-side-up, and sideways.

Are we afraid of damage to the tree? Nah. Sapsuckers have zapped our walnut before, and they’ve riddled our big yew tree, too (and gave it worse).

It’s not like in those pictures where the holes are so close you can’t see the bark anymore. I think this bird has several trees that it’s tapping. And the walnut, for instance, has thick ridges of bark that prevent the sapsucker from drilling holes one after the other, so that protects the tree from being completely girdled.

And anyway, sapsuckers are highly migratory, and this fellow is probably just passing through, on his way north to claim his breeding territory. Somewhere up in Canada, in a few months, he’ll be banging on a hollow tree or on somebody’s gutter, and working to make Kool-Aid-loving progeny.

No comments: