A new vintage in the backyard

The aroma tweaked my nose every time I walked across the backyard.

The aroma tweaked my nose every time I walked across the backyard. The first couple of times I thought it was just my imagination. But day after day, I smelled it again, and each time a little stronger. Yep, it smelled like someone was making wine.

I was only too familiar with that smell from the years Jack and I had crushed and processed box after box of California grapes — because this gentleman from the Napa Valley could and would not suffer the cost of decent wine in Canada! But the winemaking had never followed me to my home in Qualicum Beach.

Of course my first thought was that one of the neighbors was putting down his house wine.

Second thoughts discarded that solution to the redolent air. One neighbor was away, the other, I felt sure, would not be involved in that pastime.

At least two or three weeks went by with my nose twitching every time I left the back door. Then one day on my way from the back forty compost pile, the light dawned. It was the birch tree! And it was the sapsuckers; the Red-breasted Sapsuckers (syphrapicus ruber) to be exact. Between them they had the back yard smelling more like the back vat.

Sapsuckers, as their name implies, love to feed on the sap of trees, and my birch trees appear to be the favoured species. This particular young backyard birch was a volunteer I’d always planned to move to a more suitable location, but before I got around to it the tree had grown to a sturdy sapling and now to a thirty-foot tree and was loathe to leave its nourishing birthplace.

Sapsuckers, a member of the woodpecker family, have the long pointed beaks, incredible neck muscles, and supportive tail of their relatives. The drilling work of sapsuckers is easy to recognize once they go to work on a tree’s trunk … their drilled holes are always in evenly spaced, horizontal lines around the tree’s trunk.

The sapsuckers will often leave their drilling for awhile to allow the tree’s sap to start flowing then return to slurp it up with their stiff-haired tongue. The birds will drill, leave, return and slurp multiple times, and before long their fledged young are following in their slurp-holes.

The sap of course, just keeps flowing, whether the birds are feeding or not, and it was this semi-sweet birch sap dribbling down the trunk, pooling at its base, and gradually fermenting that produced the aura of a daily wine tour. (Could I look forward to a future garden tour attraction here?)

The sapsuckers don’t feed exclusively on sap, though; they round out their diet with the insects, in this case the ants, who are attracted to the drill sites and soon seen climbing in steady streams to the mother lode. This symbiotic relationship makes it a cinch for the sapsucker to carry home the protein as well as the sweeties.

Gardeners likely have a love/hate relationship with the sapsuckers, for though they consume a fair number of insects, both at the tree and on the wing, they also favor a smattering of seeds and berries which we’d rather they leave alone. Also, if they continue to attack and feed too much on the same tree they can eventually cause it to die.

My front yard birch tree, however, was riddled with sapsucker holes when I first came to QB and it continues to flourish. One large, well-drilled branch which overhung the driveway became a nuisance to me and especially my visitors who parked under it … they invariably drove away with sticky puddles of sap atop their vehicles, and in view of the younger generation’s attachment to their cars, mother finally had the gracefully drooping branch removed.

The sapsuckers help nourish other wildlife besides the ants. I once spotted a red squirrel feeding greedily on the puddle of birch sap on the pavement of the front driveway. Apparently hummingbirds are also attracted to the sap freed up by the sapsuckers, and there are stories of the hummers following in the wake of the sapsuckers’ drilling to use their own delicate tongues to download some sugar water.

Although Red-breasted sapsuckers prefer old growth forests and dead trees for nesting sites in which to rear the four to seven hatchlings from their pure white eggs, they must have living trees to provide the sap for the liquid part of their diet.

Now that the breeding season is over, the sap drilling has dwindled, as has the winery aromas wafting across the back yard … but it was an interesting event while it lasted.

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