Is This Spring?

Is this spring? The sun is shining and the air is warm, but the mountains are still white, and two days ago, a few miles north of here in the hills, we found hidden patches of snow and ice lurking in cool dark corners. Sandals and snow boots are lined up inside our front door, and outside on the porch a couple of snow shovels lean against the wall behind the bamboo rakes. It must be spring.

This morning, I was outside raking up fallen twigs and pinecones when a shadow darkened the ground. A turkey vulture had flown overhead, and as soon as I located it, at treetop level, I noticed a second one. Two more vultures then glided over the road, and then after a few seconds all four of them slid away out of sight. They were not the first vultures of the season, but I took their presence to be one more sign of spring.

A few moments later, over the rustling sounds of my raking, I heard a loud tapping sound, a rapid staccato that slowed down at the end. I had not heard that particular sound since last spring, but knew it was being made by a bird that thinks the electrical transformer on the utility pole, or a metal stovepipe, or a metal roof, makes a good drum. The bird then called out in a loud, nasal, mewing squeal, and I watched it fly to the trunk of a tall oak tree where it resumed drilling on a hollow branch. It was a woodpecker, but not the small black and white downy woodpecker, or its larger look-alike relative, the hairy woodpecker. It was not the crow-sized pileated woodpecker, that we see occasionally in the neighborhood, that master excavator who loudly hammers big chunks of wood from trees. The sounds I heard, both the staccato drumming that slows at the end and the nasal mewing squeal, were made by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, one of the early harbingers of spring.

Unlike our resident woodpeckers, the sapsucker is the most highly migratory woodpecker in North America, flying south every fall to spend the winter anywhere from the southern United States to Panama. Although almost the size of a hairy woodpecker, it looks quite different, with a red forehead, a black patch on the upper breast, and a large white patch on the wing. The sapsucker’s back is mottled, or barred, and the belly is yellowish. Both sexes have red foreheads, but the male’s chin and throat is red, while the female’s is white.

The name sapsucker comes from the bird’s method of feeding, drilling neat rows of tiny round or square holes in the bark of a tree, then licking up the oozing sap with a specially modified tongue with a brush-like tip. In our yard, there are several trees whose trunks are covered with rows of tiny holes that have been drilled by sapsuckers over the years. According to Kenn Kaufman, author of Lives of North American Birds, sap may constitute as much as 20% of a sapsucker’s diet. They also eat many insects, which they catch in the air, or find attracted to the sap, as well as berries, fruit, and the soft cambium tissue found under the outer bark of the tree.

Male sapsuckers usually arrive ahead of the females to stake out a breeding territory. Their drumming is distinctive, typically a series of two or three evenly spaced, rapid beats, followed by an irregular series of slower beats. The drumming functions the way song does for songbirds, to define territory and attract a mate. Once the male has paired up with a female, and they have begun nesting, the yellow-bellied sapsuckers become silent and seem to disappear, so we have learned to enjoy the sounds of these woodpeckers while we can.

At this time of year, when new migrant birds appear almost daily, each new arrival is one more indication that spring is here to stay. Maybe it’s finally time to toss caution aside, trust the sunshine and warm temperatures, and put away those snow shovels and snow boots.

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