(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.)
Those who freak out about the rows and rows of sap wells forget that people are like sapsuckers. We drill into maple trees just so we have something to pour over pancakes. Maple trees survive us; most trees survive sapsuckers.
Sapsuckers are not murderers. They are farmers. And their harvest feeds the neighborhood.
Take my encounter with the hummingbird, for example. While I pat myself on the back for planting the flowering currant, the fact is that the sapsucker probably played a much larger role in attracting the bird to my yard.
Hummingbirds also drink from the sap wells, which are a much more reliable source of food than my flowering currant. The shrub’s flowers provide nectar for about a month or so. The sapsucker makes sure its wells flow year-round, even on the coldest, rainiest days of winter when I’m too lazy to go out and pour fresh sugar water in the hummingbird feeder. There’s a species of hummingbird, the rufous, that’s so dependent upon sap wells it makes sure its own nest sites are sapsucker adjacent.
Then there are the insects that are drawn to the sap. Those insects are a food source for more birds. It goes on and on. Sapsuckers may make a terrible first impression, but they are the life of the neighborhood.
Slowly, they are getting some marketing help. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York named its wildlife sanctuary “Sapsucker Woods.” The sapsucker isn’t the only bird that lives there. More than 200 species visit at one time or another over the course of a year. But Cornell wants to give credit where credit’s due and the sapsucker plays an essential role in making that ecosystem so inviting.
In my own yard, the presence of the sapsucker explains why it’s been so easy for me to photograph kinglets here. The tiny birds, which weigh about as much as a nickel, dart around to catch insects. I frequently see them around the elm. Now I know why.
I’ve been seeing the evidence of a sapsucker for some time now, I just haven’t seen the bird itself. I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will.
(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.)