On The Wild Side: Tree sap a source of food for birds and even squirrels

Photo at left, an eastern grey squirrel licks sap from a maple tree during a warm day. Photo above, a yellow-bellied sapsucker pokes holes in a tree branch. Photos by Ann Brokelman.


Well, the other day I was taking a stroll through a park near my house not looking for anything, but just adding to my kilometre total, I guess. The sun was shining, the paths were clear, and a lovely assortment of eastern grey squirrels were running about.

By assortment, I don’t just mean the shades of grey and black, but they also ranged in size from festively plump to extra chunky to roly-poly behemoth.

Interestingly, though less common, grey squirrels can also have brown, red, and blonde variations. They also have their albino white versions, though those are extremely rare.

Anyway, back to my walk. As often happens, I was just out for the sake of trying to enjoy a nice day when I saw a squirrel doing something I’d never seen before: licking a tree.

I didn’t believe my eyes, so I tried getting closer. Sure enough, as I wandered around the tree, there was no doubt that his little tongue was enthusiastically licking the tree. I looked at the tree more closely and realized it was a maple. Adding to that, it looked quite wet.

The pieces had come together: the sap was running, and the squirrel was taking advantage! If only the chubby guy had some pancakes, he’d have been in squirrel heaven.

They don’t usually bother with sap in the summer, as there are so many easier sources of food.

A few articles said that squirrels will eat the sap and the bark at the same time. It seems the bark also provides sugars and nutrients, helps keep their teeth strong, sharp, and short, and pieces can be used in their nests.

Like other rodents, squirrel teeth never stop growing, so they need to chew to keep them worn down.

I’m pretty sure I knew that squirrels were rodents, but after all these years, how did I not know the rest?

Apparently, the young people like to say, “I was today years old when I found out….”

So, who else will take advantage of the tree sap?

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill rows of holes into tree bark, not just so they can have a sappy dinner, but because they can follow it with a dessert made up of all the bugs who thought they could sneak into the holes to find some sap themselves.

Hummingbirds will drink the sap and eat the bugs as well, and a variety of insects, including butterflies like the beautiful mourning cloak, eat the sap.

A lot of other birds, like nuthatches, don’t eat the sap itself but happily prey on all the sap eating insects.

I love to see something new when I’m out and about. I mean, it’s great to see a new bird, or animal, but there are so many incredible behaviours to observe, even among the most common of species.

Next time you see a squirrel sitting in a tree, take a quick look and see if it’s a maple and if the branch looks wet and runny.

We live in such an amazing place. Let’s make sure we protect it, so we can enjoy it for years to come.

Time for me to go add some more kilometres. Bye for now!

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