Over the last several months, I have been working on creating a new bird feeding area in my yard—moving it from the back to the front yard. One downside of the change is that without stepping out of the house, I cannot see the birds in my new feeding area.
Prior to moving the feeders, I could just glance out the window, and see all of the bird activity in my yard. You might wonder why I would make such a change. The reason for the change, however, was not for my benefit, but for the birds.
The habitat in the new feeding area is much better for them. It includes ponderosa pine, juniper, scrub oak, elderberry, Apache plume, three-leaf sumac, and it also has a lot of cover. Early results, based on the number of birds visiting the new feeding area, indicate the birds really like their new digs.
This past Saturday, I spent several hours working outside and thoroughly enjoyed all of the activity in the yard—it was such a birdy day. American Robins seemed to be everywhere, and they were singing as if it were spring. I had Bewick’s wrens, bushtits, yellow-rumped warblers, ladder-backed woodpeckers, northern flickers, spotted towhees, white-crowned sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, lesser goldfinches, western bluebirds, pine siskins, and more.
In addition to all of the birds, I saw butterflies, bees and other flying insects. The weather was so mild, my wife and I actually sat outside and had our lunch in the front yard. Not your typical December weather!
One interesting observation this weekend was watching a red-naped sapsucker (a type of woodpecker) for an extended period of time working on the trunk of a tree. Within minutes of the sapsucker moving on, a hummingbird showed up where the woodpecker had been just minutes earlier.
Why did the hummingbird appear right after the sapsucker left? It was probably checking out the sap wells the sapsucker had created. Sapsuckers create rows of small holes in the trunks of trees so the sap will ooze out and become accessible.
A way to explain why the hummingbird was interested in what the sapsucker was doing is to compare the sapsucker’s actions to the human activity of tapping a maple tree to harvest sap. The sap of many trees contains vitamins and minerals and is sweet to the taste.
In the wintertime, in the absence of wildflowers, how do hummingbirds meet their caloric needs? In the absence of flowers and human-provided feeders, hummingbirds have evolved over millennia to drink the sap that oozes out of trees due to the efforts of sapsuckers.
This kind of relationship—where one species is benefitted by the actions of another species—is called commensal. The sapsucker does not knowingly act in a way to benefit other bird species, but its actions provide a benefit to other birds who also feed on the sap.
The sweet sap also attracts a fair number of insects that are active on warm winter days. Frequently when these insects attempt to eat the sap, they get stuck in it and are unable to fly away. Insects trapped in the sap become an additional food source for birds.
If you have a lot of native trees in your yard, you may want to inspect them for sapsucker activity. If you see fresh sap wells, you will know that your trees are being frequented by sapsuckers. If you monitor the area, you might be able to witness this unique behavior—that of the sapsuckers, and that of other birds utilizing the sap wells as a winter food source.
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with three locations in northern Arizona – Prescott, Sedona and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at email@example.com.