Sapsucker Cuisine – Illegal Spirit Food

5120-C-Todd-Elliott“Do you want this dead bird?”  It was my neighbor calling. “It hit my window,” he said, and it looks like some kind of woodpecker. Do you want it?”

Of course I had to answer the call. When he handed me the limp body and I saw the flash of red feathers on its head, I knew this was a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Sapsuckers are amazing critters. They drill parallel rows of small holes in the trunks of trees. These are sap wells. The birds return regularly to these wells to drink the sap and consume the insects that are attracted to the oozing sap. The sapsucker’s tongue has hair-like fringes that function like a brush to facilitate its sap slurping activities.

Sapsuckers only visit our area during the winter months. This was the day of the winter solstice and now I had the mortal remains of this beautiful bird in my hand.

In this dark time of the year, its yellowish breast feathers remind us of the light that will be returning. We marveled at how this mellow member of the woodpecker family lives by tapping hidden streams of life, the life blood of seemingly dormant trees. Its fiery red, iridescent crown and throat patch remind us that even in the frigid depths of the winter forest, the fire of life is still burning. How could we honor its death on this shortest day of the year?

That unlucky bird became our guest of honor, as well as our “spirit food” at our solstice celebration that year. We plucked and cleaned its tiny body, slid it into the oven, basted it with maple syrup (to acknowledge its sap drinking habits), and using a tea saucer as a platter, we served it on a bed of wild rice. It looked like a miniature two-inch turkey in a tiny dish. How we enjoyed the tiny slices of breast meat and the miniature legs, wings, and thighs. A true taste of the winter woods.

We found out later that while we may not have done anything morally wrong, what I just described was totally illegal. A sapsucker, like almost every native songbird is protected, and it is illegal to possess a part of any protected bird (without a permit). It’s technically illegal to pick up a songbird feather in the woods. The intent of this law, of course, is to protect the birds.  If you have the feathers, how can you prove you didn’t kill the bird?  You are not likely to get busted for owning a few feathers, but occasionally wildlife officers will go through flea markets arresting folks who sell crafts (like dream catchers, etc.) that use native bird feathers. Commerce in protected bird parts is a real no-no (Remember the days of the plume hunters!)  I like to wear feathers in my hat, but I always make sure they are legal feathers from crows, pheasants, turkeys and other game birds or from parrots or domestic birds.  If you are allowed to shoot them or keep them as pets or livestock you can own the feathers.

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The brilliant flash of a woodpecker’s crimson crest in the drab browns and grays of the winter woods is like a lone glowing ember in a bed of ashes. The flash of red comes at us like a beacon of light and hope. It reminds us that even in the frigid depths of a dormant forest, the fire of life is still burning.

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The photo above showing a sapsucker feeding on persimmons reminds me that it is not too late to find ripe persimmons still hanging on, waiting to be harvested.

If you are interested learning more about harvesting and preparing persimmons check out Shake Them ‘Simmons Down!

Wintery Green Blessings to you all,
Doug

Special seasonal offers till New Year’s Day 2014 :
Any of my recordings — CDs or DVD — Two for $25. Regular price is $15 each.
Wildwoods Wisdom, the illustrated hardback book, has more “woodpeckerology” and lots more natural history, woodsy stories, and lore. This season (till the New Year) is reduced from $23 to $15.

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One thought on “Sapsucker Cuisine – Illegal Spirit Food

  1. Doug,
    Your article was such a nice tribute to the yellow bellied sapsucker. The closer you look at one, the more amazing and beautiful they are. Not long ago, a student (elementary) of mine found one that had died on our school grounds. It was brought to me, and we celebrated its life by learning about its behaviors and lifestyle, admiring its uniqueness and beauty, and learning of its nitch in the world. Most students had never realized that such a bird existed, much less existed in our midst. Lots of children got to experience seeing this creature before I interred it into the earth. It was a very teachable moment and a time to honor one of the earth’s special creatures.
    My best to you and your family.

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