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BAckyard Birder

Songbirds and sumac

A recent posting from the “Naturally Curious with Mary Holland” blog is titled: “Sumac Sustains Songbirds.”

Subscribers to the blog receive a couple of postings a week that highlight small events in the natural world with a brief narrative and accompanying photo.

Mary Holland authored “Naturally Curious,” a book that presents happenings in the natural world in a month-by-month progression, again through narrative and her lively photos.

I recommended it highly when it came out a couple years ago. And now the blog. Again, if you are reading this or any nature column, you will find the blog postings a pleasing addition to your email world.

An Internet search for “Mary Holland blog” delivers you to a page where a few clicks will sign you up.

The photo with the March 6 sumac posting shows an array of sumac branches topped off with upright clusters of small red fruits.

Here’s the text:

“By this time of the year fruit-eating birds have, for the most part, devoured the choicest fruits available in winter. What remains are the fruits-of-last-resort. While Staghorn Sumac fruits may not be a preferred food, they are an important source of winter sustenance for many species of birds, including bluebirds (pictured), cardinals, chickadees, jays, robins, waxwings, crows, mockingbirds and starlings. Some of the best late-winter birding occurs near stands of this shrubby relative of poison ivy. Can you find the four Eastern Bluebirds feeding on sumac in the photo?”

A close look finds four bluebirds, all males, which suggests there are other bluebirds in the area. I’ve never seen males without females.

I have a sumac story to tell.

First off, it’s an interesting plant, a small tree that grows in clumps along field edges and roadsides.

Velvety coating on branches suggests deer antlers, which explains the “staghorn” name.

Leaves are seriously compound with an array of opposite leaflets lined up in a pattern that resembles fern fronds. In fall they turn riotously red and orange and drop off all too soon.

That’s when the red fruits become visible, clustered and velvety like the branches they top off — but not all branches.

Sumacs are dioecious: clumps of trees are either male or female. Both form upright yellowy-green flower clusters visited by pollinators that transport pollen from male to female trees.

The flower clusters on male trees drop off after their job is done, leaving bare upright branches.

When I learned that the red berries are an important wildlife food, I assumed that mice or birds had stripped certain sumac clumps clean and hadn’t yet moved on to neighboring clumps.

No, Richard Johnson said on one of our botanizing outings. Those bare clumps are male; the clumps of trees with branches topped off by upright red clusters are female.

Ahah! Richard Johnson in his lifetime delivered a lot of “Ahah” moments to eager students of the natural world.

I admit that years of watching sumac fruit clusters haven’t delivered many wildlife sightings. I remember some robins by the Bagel Mill and a mockingbird by Noone Falls.

One sight I’m eager for is wild turkeys foraging sumac. Ted Walski, New Hampshire’s “Mr. Turkey,” says sumac is a “good emergency food” for turkeys when their preferred fruits, acorns and seeds are buried under snow.

He says turkeys rise up with a lot of wing flapping to knock the fruit spikes to the ground. Sometimes Walski knocks fruit down to help turkeys out.

I do the same, but with a slight twist.

Last fall, as a total surprise on conservation land I help tend, I found a bunch of apples on the ground. Odd, I thought, that someone would pitch apples over the boundary fence. Hundreds of apples, plump and red.

And then I looked up. Somehow, I don’t know how, in over a decade’s work at the property, I never noticed a mature apple tree. Land stewards watch for wild apple trees, as well as other plants that bear wildlife food, and “release” them from too much competition for space and light.

I set to work releasing that apple tree but with definite regret as I sawed down two tall sumac trees growing up through the apple tree. I’ve never seen such tall sumacs. Usually sumac grows in short, broad clumps in open areas, but these trees had to grow tall to reach the light they require.

I did clip off all the fruit clusters, brought them home, and a month ago began to “plant” them in our yard by stabbing bunches into the snow.

Every day now one robin comes by. On frigid days it sits on the roof to gather what little heat the dark shingles absorb. As lingering roof snow melts, it drinks from the rivulets.

When another robin shows up, it does not share the sumac.

Occasionally four bluebirds come by for a quick snack of hulled sunflower seeds. They peer down from the platform feeder, as bluebirds do, but never drop down to the sumac clusters below.

Keep a watch on sumac clumps now. As Mary Holland says, they are a food of last resort, turned to this time of year when their preferred food is gone.

A lot of robins and bluebirds overwintered locally this year. A sumac watch often is rewarded.

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