Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Hidden Life..., Part 4

Sapsucker Damage on Elm Tree

(This is part of The Hidden Life of the Hideous Tree, a nine-part series about discovering nature in my front yard. View previous installments here. The entire project is also available with additional images as an e-book.)

I didn’t see the woodpecker that day — I couldn’t see anything through the mess of branches — but I saw the evidence it left behind. From its handiwork, I could even identify it. It was a medium-sized woodpecker known as a red-breasted sapsucker.

Woodpeckers have different reasons for pecking wood. Sometimes they do it just to make noise. Loud, rapid drumming is apparently quite a turn on. If you hear that, a woodpecker is likely trying to draw the attention of a mate. We often think of singers as the chick magnets, but in this band of birds the percussionist rules.

They also peck when building a home. Their excavation work is harder to hear. They build nests in trees that are dead or dying. Decay has softened the wood and therefore the sound. Each peck is also slower and more methodical. They’re trying to craft the perfect portal into the cavity.

The tapping that I heard that day is the sound of finding food. It’s not especially loud, but it has its own distinct rhythm — or rather lack or rhythm.

Sapsuckers work entire trees. They will tap in one spot, may hop around to the other side of the tree, perhaps even to another branch, and then nearly return to where they started. To our ears, one moment the tapping may be clear, the next it may sound muffled.

There is a beautiful precision to their work, even if it may seem a bit scattered. Each hole is 1/8 inch in diameter — I measured. And even though they may be drilled out of sequence, each hole is often part of a neatly-spaced row.

Some sapsuckers make elaborate grids. The trees they have worked look like pegboards for a game of Battleship. This sapsucker wasn’t that careful, but it had been busy and had clearly been there for a long time. I couldn’t find a patch of bark that was unscathed.

(Next part)

(The Hidden Life of the Hideous Tree is available as an ebook. Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook or Instagram. Prints of his images are available through

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