Vail Daily column: Stories in the trees |

Vail Daily column: Stories in the trees

A bear's fierce claws leave distinct marks in the delicate aspen bark. Watch for these when you're out hiking!
Rick Spitzer | Special to the Daily |

Aspens form the backdrop to so many of our recreational activities here in Colorado. Hiking, skiing, camping and snowshoeing seem to be much more enjoyable when done in the shade and beauty of our famous aspen groves. But this tree provides much more than aesthetic scenery. Considered the largest living organism in the world, a single aspen grove can cover over 100 acres of land, providing invaluable habitat for wildlife of all types. Whether they climb, gnaw, burrow or nest in the protection of the aspens; all creatures leave their mark. Like ink on paper, the scars left behind tell unique stories of Colorado’s wildlife. This article will give you the inside scoop on how to find and read the stories carved in the bark of the aspen trees.

The introduction of our story in the trees is told by the red-napped sap sucker. Small deep holes drilled in straight lines around the tree; they look straight enough to be human made, but this is the all you can eat buffet made by the local sap sucker. Drawn to aspens because of the softer wood, the sapsucker drills holes and lets them fill with sap. These sappy holes attract all kinds of insects that inevitably get stuck. The sapsucker returns later to slurp up the insect sap soup that’s an important part of any woodpecker’s balanced diet.

Elk and deer are responsible for the most common scars seen on Colorado aspen trees. During our snowiest months, elk and deer rely heavily on the luscious bark of the aspen trees. Using their lower front teeth, they scrape away the bark, leaving a relatively shallow gash, but the purpose is not just to gather food. Like a dating site, the scars in the bark left by our antlered friends act like the males’ dating profile. Male elk and deer will also thrash their antlers against young aspen trees to show their dominance. This aggressive thrashing leaves the bark worn smooth or left in tatters and strips. These signs are meant to say, “Bring it on!” to other males in the area, and of course, to attract females. The marks that are higher up in the trees usually represent a stronger, larger male that all the does are looking for.

Protect the cubs

Higher up in the food chain and higher up in the trees is where you’ll find the sign for our next critter. Black bears often leave their mark in the form of long defined claw marks from where they dug in to scramble up. But why do bears climb? Many people wouldn’t guess that bears commonly practice climbing for protection, because as bears, who would they need protection from? Other bears, of course. Male bears emerge in spring feeling rather ornery, and this aggression is often directed at the newly born bear cubs. Male bears have no way of knowing if the cubs belong to them or not, so they will often kill young cubs to mate once again with the female to promote their own blood line. But the fierce mother bears don’t often let this happen. They send their young ones up the trees and protect them from down below. It’s easy to see where the saying “mama bear claws” comes from while watching a mother bear fight for the life of her cubs. It’s not always serious when bears climb though, as black bears are incredibly playful and curious at all ages. They enjoy practicing their climbing skills not only for protection, but to gain a better vantage point as they love seeing all the action.

Now that you have the inside scoop on the marks in the bark, make sure you keep your eyes open, read up and stay current on the stories in our aspen trees. Happy hiking.

McCale Carter is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center, who loved the chance to learn the art of skiing here in the valley but can’t wait for a new season of stories to begin.

Support Local Journalism