Friday, June 8, 2012

Birds In The Garden

Photo of Yellow Bellied Sapsucker courtesy Dominic Sherony for

I always thought that having plenty of birds in the garden was a good thing.  Well, not always.

One of my favorite times to be in the garden is in the early morning when I do a walk around assessment of things.  This daily routine gives me a chance to pat myself on the back with one hand--for all those things I have done right--and flog myself with the other for all those things that have gone horribly wrong. Despite the cognitive dissonance that goes on, one of the enjoyments of this little morning perambulation is listening to the steady chorus of bird song that radiates from all corners of the garden. Because I enjoy these melodic serenades so much, I tend to have an open door policy for birds around here.  I even feed them with the hope that I'll attract more.  Yes, occasionally there are some problem types I have to deal with, like the family of rowdy, loud-mouthed crows who often wake me up too early in the morning.  Or, the gang of wild turkeys, who every summer wander over from the wrong side of the stream to nibble on our hostas until just before hunting season, when their sixth sense tells them to high-tail it out of here before someone (I'm not naming names) turns them into a holiday main course.  However, in general, I get along pretty well with my avian neighbors.  Unlike some of our city friends, we don't have massive flocks of starlings to deal with who can show up by the thousands, like a bunch of unannounced relatives, expecting to spend the night in your trees, or maybe swoop across the sky and literally turn day into night with one of their fancy murmurations.  And, for that matter, we don't have pesky pigeons, whose idea of a good time is to spend the day in the park loading up on any kind of junk food that moves through their little crops and gizzards faster than a Japanese bullet train, and then roost for the night on a second-floor windowsill right above your expensive patio furniture.  So, it's been pretty much come one, come all for the birds. At least until recently.

The wonderful patterned flowers of our Crimson Cloud Hawthorn trees

Several weeks ago I happened to see an argument take place between a bunch of woodpeckers over who was gonna be the first to peck our hawthorn trees to death.  At the time, I thought they were a group of Downy Woodpeckers, the extortive kind that normally hang out around here and never give us any trouble as long as we keep feeding them expensive store-bought suet. But these new birds would peck at our hawthorn trees for awhile and then the four of them would gather on the fence rail, to argue over what appeared to be territorial stuff, at which time I would run out and try to chase them away, insisting all the while that they could stop their arguing because I knew exactly whose territory it was. This went on for several days until I became really concerned about how much abuse our hawthorn trees could actually take from a bunch of determined birds who have beaks designed like concrete hammer drills. So, I explained the situation to my friends, Don and Lillian Stokes who, without so much as a moments hesitation, told me that I was undoubtedly dealing with a group of unruly Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers.  Now, if there's anyone in America who knows a yellow bellied sapsucker when they see one, it's the Stokes.  They have written more than 30 books on birding and nature and have recently authored the ultimate field guide, The Stokes Field Guide To The Birds of North America, a bestseller currently in its third printing which, as you will see when you look it up, lists the yellow bellied sapsucker right there on page 440 just adjacent to some of its other sapsucking cousins.  So, the Stokes know what they're talking about! (You can see more of what the Stokes do by clicking here to check out their blog).

However, I think the last time I heard the term "yellow bellied sapsucker" bandied about was in the old TV westerns when toothless cowboy sidekick, Gabby Hayes would say to Roy Rogers..."Consarn it, Roy (Gabby was always making up words), those bank robbers ain't nothin' but a bunch of stinkin' yellow bellied sapsuckers--Dadgumit!" At which point, fightin'-mad Gabby would throw his tattered hat to the dusty ground and Roy would jump on his horse Trigger and take off after the bad guys.  But, sure enough when I went to my Google machine and typed in "yellow bellied sapsucker," nothing about bank robbers came up.  Instead, there they were, photographed in living color--the birds who were tearing my trees apart. The Stokes were right.  I was able to do a little more research and positively identify them by playing this sound clip where you can clearly hear their screechy little fingers-on-a-blackboard call.  A call that sounds more like a cat than a bird (they need to work on that) and which, in addition to annoying me now every time I hear it, totally confuses our two barn cats, Chelsea and Wendelberry, who can't make heads or tail-feathers out of a creature who sounds like a litter mate but can also fly through the air.

At any rate, what I read as a result of my Google inquiry didn't make me feel good at all.  I kept running across statements like..."go ahead and sacrifice the trees that the sapsuckers have chosen or they'll simply move on to other trees which they will also destroy." Well, all of this talk about sacrifice sounded a little too Mayan for me and I didn't like it.  And so,  I decided to wrap the hawthorn's trunks with burlap as a means of protection, and with the hope that it might coax the sapsuckers back into the forest where they came from.  Which brings up another point:  We are surrounded here in New Hampshire by thousands and thousands of acres of trees; every type of tree you can imagine in a northern hardwood forest. You can't put your hands on your hips without knocking your elbow against a tree.  If you do one of those birds-eye-view, Google Earth things on your computer and type in our location, what you see is a giant mass of green with just a few little clearings which are either villages, like the one in which we live, or the spot where a moose slept last night. And, in New Hampshire, these are often similar in size and hard to tell apart.  In other words, there are a hell of a lot of trees.  So, with all this forest at its disposal, what makes a bird not much bigger than a cell phone fly over our little farm, and from many feet up in in the air make a decision to pick on my three tiny hawthorn trees? There must be something about hawthorn sap that I don't know.

My research tells me that sapsuckers make characteristic marks on trees, like the ones on our hawthorns shown in the photo at left, which I can hardly look at.  They not only extract the sap from the tree but also use it as a kind of bait to attract insects, which they also then consume.  A little sneaky if you ask me.  These are bold little birds.  You can practically walk right up to them to take their picture (like I did with my IPhone in the photo below) and they'll just thumb their beak at you. Their boldness makes the Bald Eagle look like a terrified canary and if they didn't have such a goofy and ridiculous name they might displace it as the national bird. 

There is no sign that these four sapsuckers are giving up on our hawthorns anytime soon.  The photo at right will give you an idea of how well the burlap thing worked out.  They simply started pecking apart the limbs and central leaders of the trees rather than the trunks. 

Speaking sacrificially, I suppose if I had to pick a few of our ornamental trees for these birds to suck the sap out of, it would be the hawthorns.  They are tough trees.  However, ours are very young trees and only time will tell if they will survive this vampiric-like onslaught. 

Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers migrate south for the winter to the southeastern US, West Indies, and Central America.  I just hope they tire quickly of this garden and we don't have to wait until fall until they pack up their stinkin' little yellow-bellied sapsuckin' luggage and get out of here. Where's my hat?  Consarn it and Dadgumit!  


  1. WOW. I've seen one or two of these birds around here and confess I've enjoyed seeing them. After this, I shall beware. I cannot believe what they've done to that tree! Found myself laughing a lot as I read (sorry). But now I hope they don't pack up their 'stinkin'little ... luggage' and head this way. Dadgumit is right! Do you think it's Hawthorns that they covet? Maybe they just like the nearby fence rail conveniently placed for them.

  2. I'm not sure it's simply the hawthorns that they covet, Maude. I don't want to sound paranoid but given the way they gather on that fence rail to chatter among themselves-all behind my back, by the way-I think there may be a bigger conspiracy going on here.

  3. Hi Joe!
    The other "amazing" thing they do is hammer away on our metal roof. The louder he is, the more attractive the female finds him. That is a pleasant morning wake-up call.
    Good luck on those hawthorns, I hope the best for you, your trees, and your birds!

  4. Hi Helen! I'm sure the little guys fill an important role in the grand ecological scheme, but pounding on metal roofs, robbing hard-working, well-intentioned gardeners of their much deserved rest is yet another reason for them to pack up their little sapsuckin' luggage and move on.




Thank you for your comments!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...