There are a number of birds that have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds and are working hard to find enough to sustain themselves until food is more plentiful. Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrushes, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers adapt their diets to whatever is available at this time of year, which can mean going from eating insects to consuming fruit. Fruits that persist through the winter are few and far between, but one of the plants that provides the most sustenance to birds in early spring is Poison Ivy. The off-white, berry-like fruits are extremely popular with at least 60 species of birds, including the early returning migrants previously mentioned, as well as Gray Catbirds, Yellow-shafted Flickers, Wild Turkeys, and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. The popularity of Poison Ivy fruit with birds explains why this plant is common along fencerows and other areas where birds roost (and pass the seeds). (Caution – irritating urushiol, an oily resin found in the sap of Poison Ivy, is present in the leaves, stems, flowers, roots and fruit of this plant.)
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The welcome sound of the “Morse Code woodpecker” is once again reverberating through our woodlands. Although many woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces with their bills, yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are distinctive — they usually begin with several rapidly repeated strikes in an “introductory roll” followed by a pause, then more strikes in an irregular pattern which some people liken to the Morse Code. These birds, like most woodpeckers, communicate with each other by drumming on different surfaces – often dead snags, but also metal signs and roof tops. They communicate over long distances, so the louder the drum, the better. Males are arriving back on their breeding grounds and establishing territories with the help of this drumming before the females arrive. Females arrive back about a week later than males, at which point, drumming will assist male sapsuckers in obtaining a mate. Females also drum, but less frequently, more softly and for shorter periods of time. Photo is of an adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker.
If ever there was a species which defied the notion that males don’t participate enough in raising their offspring, it would be yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Without fail, the male parent keeps up with his mate in numbers of visits to their nesting hole, as well as the amount of food he collects and brings to the nest. He also partakes in nest cleansing. Often, when the male and female of a species’ plumage is similar, as in woodpeckers, you will find that that they share rearing responsibilities. The young of cavity nesters mature more slowly than open-nesters because their nest site is safer. They also leave the nest at a relatively later stage of development, when they can fly well, even though they have no room to practice flapping their wings.