Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sapsuckers and sap flow

What: Last week, I was out checking the bees with Zac and Sophia and we noticed that the boxelder looked like it had wet its pants. A few days earlier, Clay had spotted an odd ball woodpecker in our backyard and I thought from a quick glimpse it may have been a sapsucker. When we inspected the "wet spots" on the boxelder, sure enough there were all sorts of little drill holes. We licked the bark and it was delicious.

There are a lot of origin stories about the human discovery of maple sugaring. I'll bet almost all of them are false and created many generations after humans were utilizing syrup. I've got three bets for how humans discovered sugaring:
  1. Red Squirrels: I've watched red squirrels chew little notches in branches of sugar and red maples. I've also watched them return and lick off the sap from bark later.
  2. Sapsuckers: Water can be hard to come by in the winter. Curiosity, particulalry when there's a need for something, runs high in humans. My first inclination when I saw the drill holes and wet bark was to wonder what the sapsucker was after. My second inclination was to taste the sap. I was rewarded with a delicious treat.
  3. Broken branches: Silver maples and boxelders both grow along floodplains. Winter can be rough on trees and without the metabolic activity to heal wounds, exposed wound sites will "bleed" once the sap starts flowing. Early in the sugaring season, when temperatures still drop well below freezing at night, any sap that might flow out of a broken branch can freeze into a sapsicle. The water freezes first and the outer coat is extra sweet. Kids love to suck on icicles and I'll be it was a kid that first discovered these sweet treats. 
I've kept an informal list over the years of species that I've seen sapsuckers tapping. The list this year includes: Black walnut, Red oak, Boxelder, Silver maple, Hemlock, Bitternut hickory, White pine, Norway spruce, Black cherry, and Paper birch.
black walnut with drill holes from sapsucker

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