The Art of Sap-tapping

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Woodlands in the Pacific Northwest are home to a great many birds that, in some fashion, use trees to survive. Some roost in trees, nest in trees, hunt from trees; others glean insects from leaves and bark, or pick fruit from branches, or harvest seeds from conifer cones. But some birds take their tree-proclivities to extraordinary lengths, and are all but irrelevant without them. Take woodpeckers, for instance.

Woodpeckers are avian arborists. As you’d expect in any profession, there are certain tools of the trade: a reinforced bill that alternately hammers, chisels, bores and excavates woody plant tissue; a concussion-proof cranium; stiff-bristled tail to prop up against trees; zygodactyl feet (two toes facing forward, two facing back) for clinging to bark; long, flanged tongue to capture wood-boring insects; a propensity to drum against objects to communicate with one another and establish territory. But within this tree-hugging guild is a group of birds that get downright artisanal in their woodworking. They farm trees for sap, drilling networks of wells of astonishing symmetry, collecting the exuded sap as systematically as the rubber-tree tapper, the maple-syrup producer making rounds at a plantation. Rather prosaically, these birds are known as sapsuckers.

The sapsucker genus Sphrapicus—from the Greek “sphura”, to hammer—comprises four North American species: Williamson’s, Red-naped, Yellow-bellied, and Red-breasted. Westernmost in distribution is the Red-breasted Sapsucker. Much as the name implies, mature individuals sport a crimson wash across the head and chest, and make a living lapping sap from wells drilled into trees and shrubs. Premium well sites—analogous to fenced-off rubber and maple plantations—are zealously guarded against interlopers. Sapsuckers will supplement their saccharine diets with insects, which are often attracted to the sticky, oozing wells. When rearing protein-hungry young, sapsucker parents have been observed dipping insects into sap before feeding, presumably as a sugary condiment of sorts. Sappy but true.