Q&A: What’s causing a line of holes on my tree trunk?

Q: A couple of my mature trees have developed holes in their bark over the years. Interestingly, they’re in a fairly even pattern, running up and down or horizontally across the trunk. Do you know what’s causing it and should I take any action?

A: This sounds like damage from a woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The evenness of their drilling pattern is characteristic of this species. They spend the winter in Maryland but breed further north in the summer (and in westernmost MD). Although a tree might eventually succumb to heavy damage, often their pecking causes no serious dieback.

yellow-bellied sap sucker bird on a tree trunk
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Photo: Pixabay

They create small circular pits or larger rectangular patch “wells” in the bark to access the sugary sap flow. Insects attracted to the oozing sap are also eaten. They favor forest-edge habitat, plentiful in suburbia, where there tend to be faster-growing young trees. Hundreds of tree and shrub species can be used, but birds prefer those with high sugar content in the sap or those that are ailing or already wounded from prior pest, disease, lightning, or storm damage (and possibly excessive pruning).

sapsucker holes in a tree trunk
Photo: University of Maryland Extension

You may be surprised to learn who else takes advantage of sapsucker activity. Northbound migrants of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depend on these sap wells as an early source of nourishment before spring blooms are available. Porcupines (Western MD) and bats also utilize them, plus squirrels and several other bird species. Their chiseling, while perhaps inconvenient to us, is therefore invaluable to forest biodiversity. You can learn more about sapsuckers in Cornell’s All About Birds web database.

If you don’t appreciate their drilling on your garden plants, well…there’s little you can do. As a migratory, nongame bird, they’re protected from harm by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You could exclude them by caging tree trunks that are being targeted, but this will simply force the birds to choose additional hosts in the area. Plus, it would be difficult to mount and secure such a barrier around a section of trunk with multiple branches. Don’t treat the trunk wounds with any sort of sealant, as that may hinder any healing that does occur. If any branches die back, just trim them off.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read additional articles by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Q&A: Can you recommend plants that provide food for birds?

Cedar Waxwing dining on a Green Hawthorn berry. Photo: Miri Talabac

Q: This summer’s mysterious bird illness has me thinking…I’ve become more interested in birds during the past two years and would like to attract them to my yard with plants. Are there favored recommendations?

A: Bird-attracting landscaping definitely beats out bird feeders as the preferable way to bring these beauties into yards for easier viewing as a safer environment than a communal feeder. (While you’re at it, look into ways to discourage window strikes since plants, like feeders, could increase encounters with glass.)

Plant recommendations are going to be incredibly varied because the diet of birds is so varied, both across species and throughout the year. Site conditions in your garden will narrow down what may be an overwhelming list of choices. Here are some general tips:

  • Plant as much variety for which you have room.
  • Plant to provide food for insects and the birds will follow.
  • When looking at berry or seed production, consider productivity for each season.
  • Try to focus on native plants only, since birds will deposit their seeds beyond your landscape.

To pick a timely category – late-ripening berries – there are some notably popular species. Highly-ranked contenders for both resident and southbound migrant birds include Viburnums, Dogwoods (trees and shrubs), Spicebush, Virginia Creeper, Eastern Redcedar, Magnolia, Black Tupelo, Hackberry, Sassafras, Bayberry, Sumac, Hollies, and Hawthorn.

Cornell’s All About Birds web library plus local Audubon Societies are good resources for more thorough information on individual species diet, habitat preferences, and plant suggestions for both foraging and nesting.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

June Maryland Wildlife – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Listen to podcast

Hello Listener, 

In this month episode we are speaking with Kerry Wixted, Education and Outreach Specialist for Maryland DNR about Maryland wildlife.   Did you know we have native rattle snake in Maryland?  Learn why possum are so useful to have in your garden?  What can you do to increase the wildlife value of your garden. 

Here is a link to the MDNR Wild Acres website

We also have our: 

  • Native Plant of the Month (Button Bush)  at ~ 26:10
  • Bug of the Month ( Manson Bee) at ~ 30:50
  • Garden Tips of the Month at ~ 36:25

We hope you enjoyed this month’s episode and will tune in next month for more garden tips. 

 If you have any garden-related questions please email us at  UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook.

Theme Song:  By Jason Inc

Hummingbirds Add Grace to the Garden

In a few weeks, they will return; flashes of emerald green winging their way through our gardens. The hummingbirds will be back.

Around April 15, hummingbirds return from their winter digs.  Weighing about the same as a dime, they pack plenty of power in that petite package.   Their wings beat 50 times a second and their aerial acrobatics are second to none. 

Our local hummingbird is the ruby-throated hummingbird.  The males sport a jaunty red handkerchief of feathers they flash to attract females and warn off aggressors.  Hey, baby.  Whoa, bud. 

As they dip their bills into flowers, hummingbirds pick up pollen on their feathers which they transfer to other flowers.  Bees and butterflies get all the press, but hummingbirds also are good pollinators.

Hummingbirds’ powerhouse metabolism needs constant fuel.  One hummingbird needs the nectar from about 1,000 blossoms a day to survive.  As gardeners, there is much we can do to help these flying jewels.

To attract hummingbirds to your garden, plan blooms from April to October to provide them with a steady source of nectar.  They supplement their diet with tiny insects and spiders, but it’s nectar they need most.

A perfect addition to your garden is the native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis.  It blooms in concert with the hummingbirds’ arrival in April when few flowers are blooming. Plus, it has the tubular form that’s custom-made for a hummingbird’s long, slender beak.

The rumors are true:  hummingbirds favor red and orange flowers.  If they also have a tubular shape, your hummingbirds will be ecstatic.  Think coral honeysuckle, salvia, and bee balm. 

Some plants fool you by having a hidden tubular base.  Look at a petunia, morning glory, lantana, or phlox to see what I mean. 

Nectar-heavy flowers without tubular shapes score big with hummingbirds, too.  Lupines, hollyhocks, and foxglove are all favorites.

Plants provide wonderful natural food sources for hummingbirds, but many people – myself included – like to put up hummingbird feeders.  The best feeders are sturdy, easy to clean and hang, and have multiple ports and perches. 

Skip the pre-made hummingbird food mixes and make your own.  Simply dissolve 1 part sugar in 4 parts water.  I boil a cup of water and add a quarter cup of sugar.  Clean and refill your feeders weekly. 

Hummingbirds prefer showers to baths, so you can make them oh-so-happy by adding a water dripper or mister to your garden.  They will delight you by dancing in the spray.

If you’d like to help your hummingbirds even more, avoid using chemicals in your garden.  Their fast metabolism and tiny size make them especially vulnerable to insecticides and herbicides.  So, use kinder, gentler controls.

I hope you will welcome hummingbirds into your garden this year.  There are few sights more joyful, few birds more charming.   

Dead Trees “Snag” Lofty Praise as Habitat

snag
A snag at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, North Tract. Photo: N. Allred

Chad Hanson, a University of California-Davis researcher and Sierra Club board member observes, “We are trapped by an outdated cultural idea that a healthy forest is one with nothing but green trees. An ecologically healthy forest has dead trees, broken tops, and down logs.”

Over the last several years, you may have noticed an increase in dead and dying trees in our watershed, particularly oaks. There are a number of factors at play, including soil compaction from development, old trunk wounds, storm damage, environmental stressors such as heat and drought, opportunistic diseases and insects, and just plain old age. If you think the only response to a dead tree is to cut it down, think again!

chickadee explores a tree cavity
Insect-feeding songbirds like chickadees find food and shelter in snags. Photo: Christa R.

It has been estimated that dead trees, called snags when they are still upright, and trees with decaying wood provide important habitat for about 25 percent of the forest wildlife species in the northeastern United States. Add aquatic species and that number climbs even higher.

Did you know that more than eighty birds in North America are cavity-nesters, include 10 species of owls, 7 ducks, 2 falcons, all 21 woodpeckers, and about 40 songbirds? They raise their young in hollowed out sections of dead and dying trees. In addition to providing a place for birds to nest, cavities also protect birds from predators and offer shelter from the elements. Dead branches serve as a perch from which birds can survey their surroundings, hunt, eat, and dry their wings and rest. If that weren’t enough, a dead tree offers a smorgasbord to insect-eating birds and other animals, with holes, depressions and cracks that double as places to store seeds, nuts and other food.

red-bellied woodpecker in a dead tree
Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Photo: Lip Kee

Logs on the ground also provide a bounty of food and shelter for a range of critters. Hollow logs provide cover and protection for small mammals like foxes, rabbits, skunks and raccoons. The wood itself may be home to ants, beetles, and carpenter bees that tunnel into it, while bark beetles build extensive chambers under the bark. These insect residents are, in turn, a good source of protein for turtles, toads and lizards. No walk in the woods is complete without flipping over a log to see what lies beneath –
beetles, worms, centipedes and, if you’re lucky, a salamander. Don’t forget to roll the log back over gently, lest you destroy someone’s happy home. Continue reading

Deer: Stay Out of My Garden!

white tailed deer
White-tailed deer. Photo: Pixabay

Q: I had great plans for my vegetable garden last year, but it was overrun with deer. They nibbled my seedlings down to the ground and ate my tomatoes. What can I plant this year that these varmints won’t eat?

A: Unfortunately, the answer to your question is “nothing.” Although there are ways to make your garden less attractive, none are truly foolproof. Here are a few ways to deter deer looking for a free lunch.

Deer-resistant plants. There are many lists of plants less appetizing to deer. Remember, though, that a plant’s lack of appeal is a function of weather, availability of preferred foods, and the need to compete with other foraging deer. A deer eats seven to 12 pounds of food per day; competition with many other hungry deer leads them to consume even the least palatable plants available. Continue reading