Lessons learned from the top of a ladder

In January, it was time to drag out the ladder and prune the apple trees. It may have been cold, but the chore has its rewards. The property looks different from the top of a ladder, and the slow pace of winter offers a different perspective.

There are times when I pause to consider the irreversible consequences of pruning one limb over another.

In these quiet moments, I am invisible to many animals. Deer will wander below the ladder browsing on the ends of the branches that have fallen. There are few items they like more (OK, there are my roses). A red-shouldered hawk perched in the cottonwood above my head ignores me. Other birds also seem to find me less threatening while on my perch.

This year, I never got around to harvesting the last of the apples from the trees. The robins and starlings haven't complained about my neglect. They have been feasting on the fruit for weeks. They attack the fruit from the top down, leaving the bottom portion of the fruit hanging from the core.

On this day, the fog has cleared and the sun is struggling to remove the rime from the trees. In flies a red-breasted sapsucker not 10 feet away. The carmine red head almost glows in the winter sun. I am on my ladder of invisibility, and it ignores me. He pauses to make sure it is safe. Then he works his way down to one of the apples and begins to feed. Frost-softened apples have to be tastier than sap. A few minutes later it looks up with a bit of applesauce on its bill and a satisfied look, and off it flies.

The next visitor is more surprising. A female Anna's hummingbird flies within 4 feet to another apple in typical hummingbird haste. It begins feeding on the softened fruit as if it was at a flower or hummingbird feeder. A few more flicks of its tongue, and it hurries off.

I have always wondered how female hummingbirds survive the winter. The resident male in my yard is both attentive and aggressive around the feeder, and it's always a male. Many females and others try to sneak a sip at the feeder, but almost none succeed. The male is never far away, puffed up on a small branch protecting his resource.

So where do the females go for food? I have scoured the property for a bloom that might sustain the females. Only the single rosemary bush holds any blossoms. None of the native plants have a single flower. This one small shrub is not enough to meet the needs of the females, especially on days when the temperature never rises above freezing. Sap wells drilled by sapsuckers are visited by hummingbirds, though little sap flows in January.

The time on my ladder has taught me that there are more resources than I realized that help a hummingbird make it through the winter. Taken together, there is apparently just enough to allow females and other males not fortunate enough to have commandeered one of the feeders in the valley to survive.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.


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