The Art of Maple Sugaring
Come late winter, with nights below freezing and the days mild, maple trees across the state begin to flow with sap. We know the final form of this sap as sweet syrup smothered over pancakes or poured over a bowl of oatmeal, but how much do you actually know about maple sugar?
Maple Sugaring Background
First produced by the Indigenous peoples of North America, maple syrup is made by boiling and reducing the sap of maple trees. There are 13 species of maple trees native to North America, and only four of those species can be tapped: Silver, Red, Black, and Sugar maples. Norway maples, which are not native, can also be tapped.
Sugar Maples produce the best sap for sugaring because the sap has a higher concentration of sugar than other maple species, typically around 2%, but can vary from tree to tree and according to season. The final sugar content of maple syrup is 66–67 percent.
Every year, Massachusetts produces 50,000–60,000 gallons of maple syrup. To produce one gallon of syrup, 40–50 gallons of raw sugar maple sap (or 50–60 gallons of Silver, Red, or Black maple sap) needs to be collected.
Maple Sugaring with Birds in Mind
As if you needed another reason to love maple syrup, you can now enjoy it while protecting bird habitats. Mass Audubon has partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Massachusetts Woodlands Institute, and Audubon Vermont to launch a Bird-Friendly Maple Project in Massachusetts, modeled after the original program developed by Audubon Vermont.
Many sugaring operations only grow and support maple trees in a sugarbush (i.e., stands of maple trees used for sap collection), leaving limited space for bird habitats. By allowing other tree and shrub species to grow alongside the maples, biodiversity and habitat features flourish. Maple producers can provide more high-quality nesting and foraging opportunities for forest birds simply by keeping cavity trees, leaving fallen logs on the ground, and adding layers of vegetation.
This kind of "structural complexity" provides niche environments that allow a variety of forest birds to coexist in close proximity. For example, Black-throated Blue Warblers form nests in the shrubs and saplings of the understory, Wood Thrushes sing their haunting flute-like songs from the midstory, Scarlet Tanagers flash brightly through the highest canopies, Great-crested Flycatchers nest in tree cavities, and Pileated Woodpeckers whack away at dead tree snags looking for carpenter ants. When done right, bird-friendly management practices can maintain sap production and improve the long-term health of the sugarbush at the same time.
Threats Facing Maple Sugaring
Sap runs normally occur in Massachusetts from mid-February to mid-March when night temperatures fall below 25 degrees Fahrenheit and days warm to at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, the sugar content of maple sap is declining over time as a result of climate change, and milder winters and earlier, more unpredictable spring thaws are resulting in lower yields and more frequent poor sugaring seasons.
The same Bird-Friendly Maple Project practices that increase biodiversity also help forests mitigate and adapt to climate change by sequestering more carbon and increasing overall forest resilience.
As an extension of our Foresters for the Birds program, landowners that meet the standards required by the Bird-Friendly Maple Project can now have their maple syrup recognized as bird-friendly.
Look for the bird-friendly maple logo to support the efforts of syrup producers.
Maple Sugaring at Mass Audubon
In February and March, Mass Audubon offers maple sugaring programs or tree-taping demonstrations at five locations: