• Range Writing

The Nesting Tree

I had admired this particular tree before: a huge quaking aspen standing near the edge of a shady grove along a small creek on the ranch. Other shepherds had visited the tree over the years as well, as a few names carved into her bark attested. The carvings had left scars, but the tree had healed and lived on to nourish the landscape. Because the tree was so large, it had long been a favorite of sapsuckers and other woodpeckers.

I was in the drainage checking on livestock when I heard a calf let out a cry from up the creek. When I walked through the timber looking for the calf, I heard a strange noise coming from the direction of the big aspens, but had to check on the calf before doubling back to find out the source of the noise.


The noise was coming from one of the numerous nesting cavities that had been drilled into the aspen tree. As I watched, a red-naped sapsucker flew onto a branch before grabbing onto the the trunk as it stuck its beak into a hole to feed its babies.

The noise from the sapsucker chicks reached a frenzy. Listen to this clip from my phone to hear the sound:


Both the male and female sapsuckers were extremely busy keeping the chicks fed, constantly taking turns feeding the gaping beaks. The aspen was leaking a little sap in a few places and there were ants traveling up and down the tree trunk, so there is plentiful food available, but this was a nesting tree rather than a feeding tree. The adult birds foraged in other trees in this shady grove that is thriving with insect life.


As I watched the activity at the nesting cavity, I noticed another small bird swoop down just below the sapsuckers. A small squirrel had stuck its head out another hole in the tree just below the sapsucker nest, but it was a house wren that forced the squirrel to seek cover.

Watching the wren, I discovered the next hole up the tree contained the wren’s chicks.

I couldn’t tell for sure, but it appeared both adult wrens were tending to the chicks. When the squirrel finally got brave enough to race down the tree trunk and away through the brush, one of the wrens chased in hot pursuit. As I watched and laughed the squirrel being chased by the tiny but fierce bird, I could hear the sapsuckers drumming away on another tree, drilling another sap well to nourish their hungry chicks.

The sap wells provide nourishment for a wide variety of species – from insects to bats, and are especially useful for hummingbirds, warblers, and chipmunks.

It’s always a pleasure to escape a hot day into the shade and comfort of aspen stand, but my chance encounter with the sapsuckers has given me a new appreciation for the importance of particular trees and the complexity of life forms they sustain. The sapsuckers are a keystone species as well. They excavate nest cavities used by other species, and drill the sapwells that nourish a wide a variety of life in the aspen stand.


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