January 9, 2013
Earlier this week, backing the car down the driveway, I noticed a bright-colored bird perched on a tall shade tree in the front yard.
It was a small, beautiful animal, with a crimson head and black-and-white-striped body. With a narrow beak, it drummed away at the tree trunk.
At first, I thought it was a young specimen of the large woodpeckers I've seen drilling into the pines in our backyard — Pileated Woodpeckers — until I noticed the neat rows of holes running sideways along the bark.
The bird turned, looking at me, as I drove slowly past: "Look what I did to your precious tree."
When I got home later in the day, I walked down to inspect the damage. The circular indentions in the bark were tiny — hardly bigger than a BB. But there were a lot of them. They circled the trunk, probing beneath the bark.
Walking into the house, I turned on my computer. After a couple different Google searches I found that this was not a baby Pileated Woodpecker. It was a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.
Contrary to its name — which sounds like an insult hurled during an old western film — this critter was no coward.
Its flagrant and systematic torture of our front yard's only shade tree was executed in the light of day for all to see.
According to allaboutbirds.org, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the most highly migratory of any other woodpecker. It uses a specialized, brush-tipped tongue to slurp the sap from all types of trees.
Leaving fresh wounds still oozing with the sticky stuff, it plunders hardwoods at its leisure, a red-headed avian vagrant with a taste for tree blood.
Other websites that reference the bird as a nuisance say the damage trees incur as a result of its feeding habits is often negligible but can be detrimental.
Circular holes that girdle the tree trunk are a warning sign that you've got some particularly fervent sapsuckers on your hands, as was the case with our tree.
The notch-work of these hardwood vampires was severe on our poor shade tree, but it was hard to say how long it had been going on. We did, after all, just move here recently, and I'm not yet in tune with the natural flux.
These patterns of almost obsessive-compulsive, horizontal holes in our tree could be avian artwork many years in the making.
I probably could have lived my whole life not noticing it if the bird hadn't spotted me pulling out of the driveway and gave me that smug side eye.
But that's how it goes when policing your residential domain. Trouble's right under your nose, and you just don't notice it until there's a reason.