Birds that inhabit trees

March 22, 2011

While the most visible effects of spring are plants that are blooming, especially the colorful ones, plants aren’t the only the things that increase their activity levels as the weather moderates and the days get longer.
Since all animals in some way or another depend on the life cycles and activities of plants for food, when plants become more active, so do the animals that depend on them for food and/or shelter.
Of course, one very obvious bunch of tree denizens would be birds. Since I spend a lot of time talking to people about the trees in their yard and the effects of those trees, I get to hear all kinds of opinions on birds that inhabit trees. As you can imagine, these opinions run the gamut from bird watchers that know every different species of bird on their property to the complete other end of the scale where no bird poop or noise from the trees is tolerated. I myself enjoy birds, and pretty much adopt a live and let live attitude towards them, but I must admit I don’t care much for having my truck covered with bird droppings first thing in the morning.
By the way, my laid back attitude does not extend to grackles, and if I knew a reasonable cure for grackles, you can bet that I would gladly pass it along to you.
When most people think about birds and their co-existence with trees, what comes to mind is probably nests, flocks of birds perching or roosting in trees, and of course the fact that birds eat fruit, nuts, and insects out of trees. One variety of birds that often gets overlooked are woodpeckers. If you have a tree that has a very regular row or ring of small holes in the trunk or larger upright branches, these were almost certainly done by a woodpecker. These holes can look so regular that it would be totally reasonable to assume that they had been done by a vandal with a drill, except that vandals are lazy and these holes are usually fairly high up in the tree.
As I already mentioned, I’m a tree person, not a bird expert. Since woodpeckers put lots of holes in trees, the subject of woodpeckers comes up pretty often when tree people like myself get together. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there are three main theories as to why the woodpeckers that put so many regular small holes in trees do it.
The first theory is that they aren’t as smart as the other woodpeckers and instead of finding an insect in the tree and digging it out, they just punch a bunch of holes in the bark and hope that they come across something that tastes good. That would be kind of the scatterbeak method of insect hunting.
The second theory is that what they actually want is the sap that will flow out of the wounds in the tree and that they aren’t really looking for insects at all. I’m not sure I put a lot of stock in this theory as I’ve seen these birds work over pine trees and I just can’t imagine that pine sap is very tasty.
The third theory is that these pests are putting holes in the trees so that sap will ooze out and attract sap feeding insects that the birds can then snap up. If that’s the case, it would make them appear to be smarter than the woodpeckers that hunt out individual insects. If this is actually what they are doing, then we could think of their baited area as a true “tree stand” for hunting.
Another tree dweller and feeder that can evoke a pretty emotional response is of course, squirrels. As with the birds, as long as squirrels stay out in the yard and trees, I’m willing to live and let live. I have to tell you though, while I meet people that pretty much share my attitude about squirrels, I meet a lot more that consider them to be nothing more than long tailed rats. That’s not an attitude that is only shared by homeowners either. I know some tree professionals that consider squirrels to be nothing but detrimental to trees.
I think that the reason some tree workers despise squirrels is because very often in the spring these animals will chew the tender new bark off small branches and sprouts in trees, which kills those branches. I have myself often seen the ugly results of this chewing, but what I’ve noted is that most of the time when this happens, these sprouts are coming from improper stubs and flush cuts that have been left in the tree from poor pruning practices. In my mind that makes me wonder if the dead branches aren’t actually more of a result of human activity than squirrels. I am curious as to what the squirrels are after when they do that, but I’ve never been able to get one of them to tell me.
There are of course other animals that live in, on, or around trees and landscaping, and whether we realize it or not, the animal life that comes with plants is just one more factor that influences how we think of and utilize trees and landscaping.
The next KWKC Green Team workshop titled Annuals and Perennials will be held at 2 P.M. Saturday, March 26th at Willow Creek Gardens, 1820 South Treadaway, in Abilene.

If you have any landscaping, landscape maintenance, or tree questions you would like answered in this column, submit them care of editor@sweetwaterreporter.com or info@BrokenWillow.com.

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