Sycamore trees commonly grow along creeks and rivers through much of the United States, including here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Some of them get massive, and all have a unique, mottled appearance on their trunks and limbs, which identifies them. That blotchy look is caused by pieces of darker outer bark falling away here and there, revealing the lighter, younger bark underneath.

The attractive bark of sycamores is noticeable from a distance because it is different from the bark of other trees. And rows of distinctive, magnificent sycamores indicate the presence of the waterways they border.

Sycamores’ roots help hold down the soil against flooding. And the large, stately trees are apartment buildings for a variety of wildlife to live and raise young in.

Some of the limbs of big, majestic sycamores are torn from their trees during strong winds, exposing the wood to agents of decay. Raccoons, barred owls, and wood ducks use the resulting protective cavities to begin families each spring.

The courtships of raccoons, barred owls, and wood ducks start in early March. Some people hear the boisterous, thrilling “eight-hooting” of barred owl pairs during their spring courtships. These owls seem to say, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all.”

But the permanent resident female raccoons and pairs of owls are probably already established in a sycamore hollow before the breeding season.

Wood duck pairs, however, are “Johnny-come-latelies” because they migrate into this area from their wintering areas farther south. Woodies, I suppose, have to take whatever sycamore hollows are still unclaimed by raccoons or barred owls.

Pairs of beautiful, lithe wood ducks are interesting to watch looking for sycamore cavities. Each hen, followed by her mate, flies from limb to limb and appraises the unoccupied nesting holes.

It seems most woody hens find enough cavities for each one to lay a clutch of 12 eggs in. But, apparently, a few hens do not because I see them in collections of bachelor drake woodies in June, when hens should be raising ducklings.

Wood duck nest boxes, erected along creeks in patches of woods, provide more choices for hen woodies to nest in, bolstering their populations.

Each raccoon mother gives birth to about four young, which she raises on her own. When old enough in midsummer, the young raccoons follow their mother on hunting trips to eat frogs, crayfish, berries, and anything else edible.

Both parent barred owls feed mice, snakes, frogs, small birds, and other prey to their two or three young in their hollows.

A day after wood duck ducklings hatch, they jump from the entrance to their nurseries to the water or ground below. Then they get up and follow their mother to water and invertebrate food they catch themselves.

Majestic sycamores are not only stately in and of themselves, but also beautiful and interesting in the wildlife they shelter. Those large trees and the wild creatures in their apartments help make our time spent outdoors more enjoyable.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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