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Limiting the impacts of sapsuckers

Challenges facing the home landscaper are many -- what to plant, where to plant, how to plant, when to plant. Once in place, there is the ongoing task of maintaining what is already in the ground, which comes with its own set of hardships like diseases and insects. In addition, animals often wreak their toothy brand of mischief on our pricy plantings. Beavers, deer, mice, rabbits, voles, and other chewers keep us constantly looking for ways to thwart them.

Rarely do we think about birds being a source of trouble in the home garden. Woodpeckers, though, might fill that role. A specific kind of woodpecker -- the sapsucker -- can rise to the level of downright pest.

Arguably the most amusing name given to any North American bird is 'yellow-bellied sapsucker' (Sphyrapicus varius). As odd as it seems, sapsuckers, like their name suggests, feed on tree sap. It's the way they do it, though, that gets them into hot water with some homeowners and orchardists.

We've all seen their handiwork, those neat rows of holes -- each about the width of a pencil eraser -- in tree bark. Called sap wells, they are drilled by sapsuckers. In turn, the birds feed on sap and whatever insects are attracted to the wells. The wells are maintained by the woodpeckers throughout a season ensuring a continuous flow.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are the only fully migratory woodpecker in the eastern U.S., annually departing their nesting range from eastern Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes. Included in this somewhat narrow breeding zone is eastern North Dakota.

These shy black-and-white birds arrive in early spring and begin announcing their presence with a stuttering, Morse code-like drumming; unique among the woodpeckers. Territorial males will often pound on metal to amplify their announcements. Like all woodpeckers, sapsuckers nest in tree cavities.

Facial patterns are a bold black-and-white with males showing a red forehead and throat; females share the red forehead but are white-throated. The amount of yellow on the patterned breast of this bird varies considerably; most times it's barely worth mentioning. In my opinion it's a candidate for a newer more accurate name.

Ten years ago NDSU introduced a Manchurian Alder tree called Prairie Horizon. I liked it so much I bought one and planted it in my yard. It's stunning. Everything about this tree is attractive, from the form and habit to its leaf and twig color. Everything, that is, except its draw to sapsuckers. This spring, for the first time since planting it, sapsuckers have begun to drill sap wells.

I've seen the clonal mother of this copyrighted tree growing at the university's arboretum near Absaraka. A few decades old now, the tree is near death if it isn't already gone. Apparent everywhere on the bark of this once magnificent specimen is row after row of sapsucker holes. I have little doubt this damage contributed to, if not caused, the demise of the tree.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, like nearly every songbird, are protected by law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Still, there must be ways to stop their bark drilling short of killing them.

"Not really," says Joe Zeleznik, NDSU extension forester, "but there are lots of things you can try." He mentions scare tactics like hanging shiny CDs from strings and such. But eventually "the birds get used to them."

Still, I'm so fond of my tree I'm willing to try anything. I vaguely recall a technique offered by retired arboretum technician Larry Chaput, where he suggested strapping a bamboo pole alongside the tree like a splint. For some reason, he said, the sapsuckers don't like to sidle around the bamboo.

Zeleznik has heard this too. "I'm going to put my extension hat on and say 'I haven't read any research supporting this idea,' but I'd certainly try it."

I realize the important role sapsuckers play in the larger ecosystem and the many critters that use their sap wells to supplement their food intake--from hummingbirds to butterflies. I just don't want it to take place on my favorite tree.

Let this serve as a notice to my neighbors: If you see me laying a length of bamboo alongside my alder tree, no, I haven't lost my mind. I'm simply trying to limit the damage caused by nature's incessant hole driller, the yellow-bellied sapsucker.