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Sapsucker Season

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yellow-bellied sapsucker holes

February welcomes the sweet smell of boiling maple syrup. Sap flow throughout the tree is triggered by freezing temperatures during the night and warmer temperatures during the day. Most trees produce sap, but the sugar maple has a higher sugar concentration than most: just 2% sugar and 98% water. Did you realize that there is only one ingredient in pure maple syrup? Just boil water out of the sap and voila, maple syrup, straight from the trees! The ingredients for most ‘pancake syrup’ include high fructose corn syrup and a long list of words I can barely pronounce. We weren’t the first ones to tap into this natural treasure (pun intended). American Indians were very in-sync with nature and learned a lot from observing wildlife. One of the fundamental players in this sweet discovery was likely the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). Unlike the name implies, this is no mythical creature from a children’s book. It’s a small woodpecker (smaller than a hairy woodpecker yet bigger than a downy woodpecker) that migrates to the U.S. in September for the winter and heads back north to Canada around May. Sapsuckers visit over 1000 different tree and plant species, but frequent sap with a higher sugar concentration such as maples. Unique to the woodpecker world, sapsuckers create a line of shallow holes. They will revisit and maintain these sapwells, licking up sap with their brush-tipped tongue, sometimes eating the cambium tree tissue, and looking for insects stuck in their last sweet and sticky meal (kind of like how you dip your chicken nuggets in sauce, extra protein!). Many people refer to the yellow-bellied sapsucker as a keystone species because so many animals rely on these sapwells for food. Some examples include ants, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, squirrels, chipmunks, and many species of birds. In fact, ruby-throated hummingbirds coordinate their spring migration with the arrival of sapsuckers to ensure an early spring food source. I encourage you to look for this essential wildlife food source. The next time you’re hiking, search for that unique row of holes. This humorously named bird deserves recognition for its contribution to feeding a plethora of animals, including you! Make sure to thank the yellow-bellied sapsucker the next time you dive into a stack of pancakes covered in pure maple syrup.