Don's Jersey Birding: A Sweet Tree for Wildlife

White-winged Crossbill feeding on Sweetgum balls at Losen Slote,
Photo courtesy of Maureen Krane

By Don Torino

     Last Sunday, birders from all over New Jersey descended upon Losen Slote Creek Park to see if they could get a look at some White-winged Crossbills that were generous enough to stop over and give us local folks a thrill. As a multitude of binoculars gazed skyward, I could hear a nice young lady cry out “There they are on the itchy balls!”. I couldn’t help but laugh, I hadn’t heard  the tree referred to by that name for a very long time. Of course, the tree that she was so happily denoting is a Liquidambar styraciflua, The Sweetgum tree.

     My first introduction to the Sweetgum goes back to my youth wandering the woods and Meadowlands with my friend Paul, who was a West Virginia transplant. Paul would always give me some of his down home words of wisdom whenever he got a chance. “When your hunting squirrels in the winter always look for the Itchy ball tree, they hold plenty of food when all the other trees are empty”, and just for the record Paul did make a mean Brunswick stew (Squirrel stew to the uninitiated).

   As time went on I never forgot the lessons of my youth and used what I had learned from my West Virginian chum, but this time for a more gentle purpose, to help me on my birding ventures: find a Sweetgum and you will find  birds.

Common Redpoll feeding on Sweetgum at Losen Slote Creek Park
Photo Courtesy of Jim Wright

    The Sweetgum tree got its name for the sweet taste and gummy feel of its sap. Native Americans and early Pioneers would chew its hard clumps of resin which could be obtained by stripping off the bark and allowing the resin to harden. Sweetgums are large trees, growing up to 100 feet tall. It has a straight trunk, up to three feet wide. Sweetgums grow in woods and along streambanks and lakes. They are easy to identify by their  star-shaped leaves with five pointy lobes, and a long stalk. Fully grown leaves are about six inches long, and bright green. In the Fall, leaves turn red. Sweetgum flowers are tiny, greenish, and ball-like that grow in clusters and of course there is its spiny ball like fruit.

     If there was ever a perfect wildlife tree it would be the Sweetgum, the nectar produced by the flowers attract hummingbirds and  thirty-three species of native caterpillars critical to a healthy ecosystem including the Luna Moth, a declining species, eat the foliage. And then of course there are those wonderful “little itchy balls”. The characteristic woody fruits covered with spikey prickles. Whether you know the name of the tree or not, everyone knows the tree that is guilty of those little brown prickly balls all over the ground in late fall and winter that you find yourself tripping over and the very same ones you loved to throw at friends when you were a kid. These wonderful little wildlife magnets make the inconvenience of the little orbs on the driveway well worth having.

The Little "Itchy Balls" as we called them as kids are a magnet for birds, they can attract everything form Crossbills to Wild Turkey
Photo by Don Torino

    The seeds in the gum ball structure  look similar to the nyjer (thistle) seeds commonly sold for bird food and will attract the same birds as a finch feeder and more. There may be up to 50 seeds in each ball that are loved by birds such as Goldfinches ,Crossbills, Redpolls, Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Red-winged Blackbirds, and even Wild Turkey dine on the little gum ball seeds. The next time you come across one of the seed balls on the ground pick it up and tap the ball in your hand, you will see all the tiny seeds drop out , those seeds mean survival to many of our winter birds. Recently read that there are Sweetgum cultivars that produce no seed balls, in my opinion this should be considered a crime against nature,  like having decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer, why bother?  
    For years my neighbor had a beautiful sweetgum which hung partly over my property, when he cut it down I lost many of the great bird species that would visit my backyard. Unfortunately this is what happens to many of the backyard sweetgums; they are cut down because home owners get tired of raking up the many balls that get strewn all over their yards. Just in case you are looking for something more environmentally friendly and imaginative with all those Sweetgum balls they can be used in many craft projects that are fun for the whole family

Maintaining native plants like the Sweetgum tree in the backyard is critical to the health of our wildlife.
Photo courtesy of AOL

   Maintaining native plant species like the Sweetgum in the backyards is critical to having and keeping a healthy and vibrant ecosystem in our community , it is a plant that plays an important role in providing food for our many bird species here in New Jersey. Without trees like them the circle of life becomes broken and cannot be repaired. Always introduce native plants to your backyard whenever possible, our birds and all wildlife depends of them.  

Don Torino is the President of Bergen County Audubon Society.

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  • 11/14/2013 5:31 PM Rob wrote:
    Saw this tree in my office park courtyard. It's November so the tree is just exploding with color. I noticed the little "itchy balls" we used to throw at each other when I was a kid and wanted to find out for the first time what the real name of the tree was. Thanks for sharing. I took a couple of seed pods. Think I'll try to grow one.
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