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Field Note: Sap-Iens: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

Published: May 3, 2020

By Mark Seth Lender

The carpenter at work. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender expands on his observations of yellow-bellied sapsucker parents making a comfortable home for their young.

Woodpeckers are cavity nesters. If you see a perfectly round hole in the side of a tree, chances are there is or was a woodpecker nest inside. Unlike the iconic woven construct we usually mean by “nest,” woodpecker houses don’t give, and accommodating a growing family is big work. And it does not seem that work can be done in advance. In the still-cold season when nesting begins, in order for first the eggs and later the young to keep warm a nest cavity probably needs to start off as small as possible. Then the race is on as the chicks grow and more and more space is required.

Every time the sapsuckers exited the nest they would look at me. A crested grebe, on her bundle of reeds out in the very middle of the pond where she was safe enough from most things that might come to harm her, even she turned to look, over her shoulder and across her folded wings. As did the other birds in the vicinity. And more than once.

They made it clear enough, they did not want me to be there. But this I came to understand only in retrospect.

The tree the yellow-bellied sapsuckers had chosen was just off a paved road, in a park, where people came not in large numbers but with some frequency. I thought the birds were tolerant and that was all there was to it. Now I see it differently. In their industry the sapsuckers were too much involved in their necessary work to be intolerant. And the historical truth, apparent to me now is that they were always there, in an intergenerational endeavor (the living equivalent of building cathedrals or pyramids), insuring the unbroken line of survival of their respective kind; and by that work, immobilized. We crowded in. Right on top of them. The way we always do.

That look the sapsuckers gave me was as I had supposed a making sure that I would do no harm, but it was also a request to undo some of the harm I’d done already. By leaving.

Back to Mark Seth Lender Field Notes


Listen to the original "Sap-Iens: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers" essay

Mark Seth Lender’s website


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