(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.)
Judging from the results of a Google search, most of the people who discover they’re living with a sapsucker do the same thing: Try to find ways to get rid of it. It’s an understandable reaction. As I was now seeing firsthand, the birds do extensive damage.
You have probably guessed — and rightly so — that the sapsucker is after sap. To reach it, it must first punch through the bark. The holes it makes are actually tiny wells. Feeding is therefore a two-step process. After drilling the well, the bird must wait for it to fill with sap. That can take a while, so as it waits it drills more wells.
In the worst case, the tree’s bark can become colander-like, sap oozing through the holes. And when the sap runs dry, the sapsucker’s holes can become gateways to destruction, allowing fungi and bacteria through to consume the tree from the inside out.
It’s this doomsday scenario that sends homeowners to the internet, frantically searching for ways to keep the bird at bay. When a sapsucker finds a tree it likes, that becomes its tree. And it has a maintenance plan of its own: one that’s designed to keep the sap flowing.
I’ve seen this kind of damage, although not in my yard. On a nature walk I once saw a tree that looked like it was crying sap. It had a certain abstract beauty. But then it’s easier to appreciate the handiwork of an avian Jackson Pollock when the canvas is someone else’s tree.
Once a sapsucker has taken a liking to your tree, some arborists suggest wrapping the trunk in burlap. That seems to prevent the bird from tending to the wells it has started, allowing the tree to heal. I might have done something like that had my tree been a birch. If a sapsucker starts on one of those, it’s a flip of a coin as to whether the tree will survive.
For my tree, like more than 90 percent of others, a sapsucker residency is a blessing — not a curse.
(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 LivingWilderness.com.)