Occurring in the Pacific Northwest, the Red-breasted Sapsucker is related to the Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers with which it was formerly considered to be the same species. All three species are named for the many small holes they drill into sap producing trees. Other birds and insects also make use of these sap wells, and the Red-breasted Sapsucker defends them from intruders.
Male Red-breasted Sapsuckers do most of the nest cavity excavation. They do not reuse old nests, but they sometimes make a new nest in a tree that was used before. Red-breasted Sapsuckers often return to the same breeding area from one year to the next.
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Description of the Red-breasted Sapsucker
The Red-breasted Sapsucker is a medium woodpecker with a red head and breast, black wings with a large vertical white wing bar, yellowish underparts, and a black back heavily marked with white or yellowish. Northern and southern subspecies have slightly different plumages.
The sexes are largely similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have brownish heads.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers inhabit coniferous forests with a deciduous component.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers eat insects, tree sap, and fruit.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers forage by drilling sap wells in tree bark, as well as by gleaning insects from trees, or by harvesting berries.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are resident along the west coasts of the U.S. and Canada. They breed over a larger area of the west, with migratory birds moving to the south and west of the breeding areas for the winter. The population appears to be stable.
It was only in the 1980s that the Red-breasted Sapsucker, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker were split into three species.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers and Red-naped Sapsuckers hybridize where their ranges overlap.
Calls include a nasal squeal or a loud “qheeah”.
- Red-naped Sapsuckers have black on the breast and more extensive white striping on the head.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker’s nest is in an excavated tree cavity.
Number: Usually lay 4-7 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14-15 days, and begin to fly in about another 3-4 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Red-breasted Sapsucker
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Red-breasted Sapsucker – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
SPHYRAPICUS VARIUS DAGGETTI Grinnell
The above name was applied to this sapsucker by Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1901) and was characterized by him as smaller and paler than the northern race and with a maximum extent of white markings. It is evidently a well-marked race. But whether the red-breasted sapsucker should be considered a subspecies of the yellow-bellied sapsucker seems to me to be a decidedly open question, on which authorities seem to have differed, or to have changed their minds. In support of his views, Dr. Grinnell (1901) says: “I have examined a number of skins of the rnwluzlis type, and others approaching ruber in ahnost every degree, and I am certain that there is a continuous intergradation geographically between the eastern S. variua and ruber of the Pacific Coast. The intermediates do not appear to be the result of ‘hybridization’ and the case does not seem to be at all parallel to that of Colaptes auratus and C. cater. Therefore I see no reason why the Red-breasted Sapsucker is of more than subspecific rank.”
It is interesting to note that Ridgway used the name Sphyrapicus varius ruber in 1872 and again in 1874 (Ridgway, 1914, in synonymy), but 40 years later (1914) he gave the red-breasted sapsucker full specific rank, apparently having changed his mind. And, in the same work, in a footnote under the red-naped sapsucker, referring to the intergrades mentioned by Dr. Grinnell, he says: “But they may be (and I believe are) hybrids; certainly there is no more reason for not considering them as such than in the case of Colaptes.”
Certainly the red-breasted sapsucker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker are as much unlike in appearance as the two flickers; and the hybrid flickers certainly show “every degree” of intergradation. In the large series of sapsuckers that I have examined, containing 87 typical ruber and 86 typical nuchalis, I was able to find only 8 specimens that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered as intermediates; I believe that these intergrading sapsuckers will prove to be relatively less common than are the hybrids between the two flickers.
It is interesting, too, to note that the first three editions of the A. 0. U. Check-List, 1886, 1895, and 1910, all gave the red-breasted sapsucker full specific rank, in spite of the fact that Ridgway had called it a subspecies of the yellow-bellied in 1872, and Grinnell had done the same in 1901. But the fourth edition, 1931, adopts the subspecies theory, in spite of Ridgway’s latest decision.
The southern race of the red-breasted sapsucker breeds in the Canadian and Transition Zones in the mountains of California, from the Trinity and Warner Mountains southward to the San Jacinto Mountains. Grinnell and Storer (1924) say that it “is found in the main forest belt during the spring, summer, and fall, but regularly performs an altitudinal migration which carries it down into the tree growths of the western foothills and valleys for the winter months.”
Nesting: Very little seems to have been published on the nesting habits of this sapsucker, which probably do not differ materially from those of its northern relative, about which more seems to be known. Wright M. Pierce (1916) located one of its nests in the San Bernardino Mountains, on June 26, of which he says: “The cavity was in the dead top of a large live silver fir about forty-five feet up. The cavity had a small opening and was only S or 6 inches deep; diameter, inside, 1½ or 2 inches. The nest held two large young and one smaller dead one. It was hard to see how more than one bird could survive m such a small space, so it was not surprising that the probably weaker bird had apparently been suffocated.”
Eggs: The red-breasted sapsucker lays usually four or five eggs, sometimes as many as six. Like all woodpeckers’ eggs, they are pure white, usually with very little or no gloss, and they vary from ovate to rounded-ovate. The measurements of 13 eggs average 23.79 by 17.25 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 24.6 by 17.0, 23.81 by 17.86, 22.5 by 17.5, and 24.5 by 16.6 millimeters.
Young: Incubation is said to last about 14 days; this duty and the care of the young is shared by both parents. Mrs. Irene G. Wheelock (1904) says of a nest that she watched: “Incubation began May 30, and lasted fifteen days. The young were fed by regurgitation for the first two weeks. * * *
“The young sapsuckers left the nest on the seventh of July, and clung to the nest tree for three days. Here they were initiated by both parents into the mysteries of sap-sucking. A hole having been bored in front of each, with grotesque earnestness the mother watched the attempt to drink the sweet syrup. During this time both insects and berries were brought to them by the adults, in one hour one youngster devouring twelve insects that looked like dragonflies.”
Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1902) writes:
The lest week in July at Donner Lake we found a family of dull colored young going ahout with their mother, a handsome old hird with dark red head and breast. They flew around In a poplar grove for a while, and then gathered in a clump of wmows, where four young clung to the branches and devoted themselves to eating sap. The old bird flew about among them and seemingly cut and scraped off the bark for them, at the same time apparently trying to teach them to eat the sap for themselves; for though she would feed them at other times she refused to feed them there, and apparently watched carefully to see if they knew enough to drink the sap. When the meal was finally over and the birds had flown, we examined the branch and found that lengthwise strips of bark had been cut off, leaving narrow strips like fiddle-strings between. At the freshly cut places the sap exuded as sweet as sugar, ready for the birds to suck.
Plumages: Like other young sapsuckers, the young of this species are hatched naked, but the juvenal plumage is acquired before they leave the nest. In the juvenal plumage, in which the sexes are alike, the wings and tail are essentially as in the adult; the head and neck, except for the white stripe below the eye, are dark grayish sooty, though the forehead and crown are usually more or less tinged with dull red; the sides and flanks are more or less barred with dull gray and white; and the abdomen is dull yellowish white.
By the last of July, or first of August, the molt into the first winter plumage begins, with an increasing amount of red coining in on the crown, throat, and breast; at the same time the yellow of the abdomen becomes brighter. This molt continues through fall and is often not complete until November or later. The young bird is now much like the adult. In fall birds, both adult and young, the red of the head and breast is much duller than in spring, “Brazil red” to “dragon’s blood red” in the fall, and “scarlet red” or bright “scarlet” in the late winter and spring; this is due, of course, to the wearing away of the tips of the feathers; in early summer, just before molting, the red is decidedly brilliant.
Adults have a complete annual molt, beginning sometimes in July and lasting through August or later.
Food: The food of the red-breasted sapsucker is much like that of its close relatives in the variu8 group. MI. P. Skinner writes to me: “I have found red-breasted sapsuckers drilling on cottonwoods, willows, yellow pines, and lodgepole pines; but all the actual feeding I have seen was on willows. Mr. Michael tells me that these birds work largely on the apple trees that have been planted in various parts of the Yosemite Valley. When a sapsucker is at its wells, it takes a sip now and then, but considerable time is used in watchful guarding, or in driving away intruders or would-be robbers. In the case of such wells as I found on willow stems, I could see no established regularity in arrangement. They looked as if the bark had been irregularly scaled off. In fact, such work may be necessary to secure the inner bark; yet the birds actually took sap at such wells. One had a dozen willow stems on which it drilled and sipped in succession; each one was only a few inches from the next; and the bark of each, both above and below the wells, was worn smooth. This bird went from well to well in regular order, then back to the first well to begin again. Although sap formed the bulk of their food in August, I have seen them also searching the bark for insects during that same month.”
MIcAtee (1911) lists the following trees that are attacked by the red-breasted sapsucker: Cottonwoods, willows, walnuts, birches, oaks, barberry, sycamore, mountain-ash, pears, apples, peaches, plums, apricot, orange, pepper, and blue gum (Eucalyptus). Emanuel Fritz (1937) has, on several occasions, found this sapsucker attacking redwood trees. “In each instance the individual tree was ‘peppered’ with holes in horizontal rows, from the base to the top. In virgin timber, it is only an occasional tree that is attacked, and one searches in vain for another victim in the general vicinity. * * *
“During the present year, the writer came upon his first example of sapsucker work on so-called second-growth redwood. * * * The sapsuckers attacked every tree in two groups, or families, of sprouts.”
W. L. Dawson (1923) writes:
The red-breasted sapsucker does puncture trees and drink sap both In summer and winter. In summer it attacks in this fashion not only pine, fir, aspen, alder, cottonwood and willow trees, but such orchard trees as apple, pear, prune and the like, as may lie within Transition areas. In winter at lower levels it gives attention to evergreen trees, white birch, mountain ash, peach, plum, apricot, English walnut, elder, and pepper trees. * * * Instead of gleaning at random, as we might expect, the Sapsucker makes careful selection, like a prudent forester, of a single tree, and confines his attentions henceforth, even though it he through succeeding seasons, to that one tree. Starting well toward the top of an evergreen, or well up on the major branches of an orchard tree, the bird works successively downward in perpendicular rows, whose borings are sometimes confluent. In this wny the bird secures an ever-fresh flow of sap, from below. If carried on too extensively, or persisted in for successive seasons, these operations will sometimes cause a tree to bleed fatally, or at least to fall easy victim to insect pests. I have myself seen limbs of mountain ash trees, pear trees, and English walnut, done to death In this fashion. Yet it is only fair to say that but one or two trees in an orchard may be attacked, and there is scarcely more danger of the trouble spreading than there would he from successive strokes of lightning. * * *
For the rest, Sphyrapicns ruler is a large consumer of ants, and does some good in the destruction of leaf-eating beetles. Berries of the pepper trees (Schinus mefle) are eaten to some extent, in winter, as are also, regrettably, seeds of the poison oak.
W. Otto Emerson (1893) says: “One I watched every morning from my tent fly to the top of a tall burnt tree and rap its roll-call as a kind of warning may be to the flying insects. It would then sail out like a flycatcher, catch an insect, and return to the burnt tree-top. Its movements were very graceful and regular. As it dipped or circled around for this or that insect the sunlight catching on th& red breast lit it up like a patch of flame.” He says elsewhere (1899) : “One I found in a willow tree trying to get the best of a yelloxv jacket’s nest, dodging back and forth either to get a mouthful of their stored sweets or the jackets themselves.”
Junius Henderson (1927) gives, in his table, the percentages of animal and vegetable food, exclusive of. sap, taken by this sapsucker. Based on a study of 34 stomachs the total animal food made up 09 percent and the total vegetable food 31 percent of the whole; percent consisted of ants and 12 percent of fruits, mostly wild; insects accounted for 11 percent and seeds for 5 percent.
Behavior: Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:
The Sierra red-breasted sapsucker is in our experience well-nigh voiceless and its work is done in such a quiet manner that it does not ordinarily attract attention, as do the woodpeckers that are wont to pound noisily. The most vigorous drilling of the sapsucker will scarcely be heard more than a hundred feet away. The bird moves its head through a short arc, an Inch or two at the most, giving but slight momentum to the blows. The chips cut away are correspondingly small, mere sawdust as compared with the splinters or slabs chiseled off by other woodpeckers. The strokes are delivered in intermittent series, four or five within a second, then a pause of equal duration, then another short series, and so on. From time to time a longer pause ensues, when the sapsucker withdraws Its bill and gazes monocularly at the work.
Mr. Skinner says, in his notes: “Although methodical, these birds seem quite nervous, moving from stem to stem. Generally they perch lengthwise of a limb when working or feeding but are apt to perch crosswise when hopping from limb to limb. After a sapsucker has its wells established, it finds it necessary to stay near to guard them from other birds attracted by the sap, or by the insects drawn there. Preening is often done while guarding the wells. The hairy woodpeckers chase these sapsuckers from tree to tree. The Audubon and lutescent warbiers literally swarm to the sap-wells in the willows whenever the sapsuckers cease to guard them, but I do not know that there is active antagonism between the species. On one occasion, I saw a young sapsucker chase off a chipmunk that came too near.”
Voice: Ralph Hoffmann (1927) says that “the ordinary cry is a nasal squeal, cUe-arr, somewhat suggesting the note of a red-bellied hawk.” But it is apparently not a noisy bird, as Grinnell and Storer (1924) say that it is “well-nigh voiceless”.
Field marks: The red head and breast of the adult are uninistakable and very conspicuous. The young bird might be mistaken for the young of the red-naped sapsucker, as they are much alike, but the head of the red-breasted sapsucker is darker and often shows dull red. The broad, white band in the wing is conspicuous while the bird is perched or when flying; this is common to both adults and young, but the red-naped sapsucker has a very similar white band.
Winter: Mr. Dawson (1923) writes: “Sapsuckers are more extensively migratory than any other woodpeckers, save Colaptes, but r-uber’s migrations are chiefly altitudinal. Retirement from the untenable heights is quite irregular, and dependent upon weather conditions. The winter distribution, also, appears somewhat irregular and haphazard. The bird is very quiet and rather stolid in winter, as becomes a bird of high feather. It is, however, quite as likely to be seen in a city park or on a shaded avenue as in a foothill forest.”
SPHYRAPICUS VARIUS RUBER (Gmelin)
NORTHERN RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER
The northern race of the red-breasted sapsucker breeds from Alaska southward to western Oregon, chiefly in the Canadian Zone. IRidgway (1914) says that it is “similar to” the southern race, “but slightly larger and with coloration darker and brighter; the red of the head, neck, and chest averaging brighter, and whitish spots on back usually smaller (sometimes obsolete) .”
Bendire (1895) says of its haunts:
Throughout Its range I think this species breeds frequently at lower altitudes than SpA yrapicus varius nuchalis. Fort Kiamath, however, although but 4,200 feet above sea level, has a very cool summer climate, frosts occurring in almost every month in the year. The surrounding country is very beautiful at that time. Heavy, open forests of stately pines and firs, among these the graceful and beautiful sugar pine, are found on the mountain sides and reaching well down into the green, park-like valleys. Interspersed here and there are aspen groves of various extent, their silvery trunks and light-green foliage blending artistically with the somber green of the pines. These aspen groves are the summer home of the Red-breasted Sapsucker.
Spring: In the vicinity of Fort Kiamath, Oreg., Bendire (1895) found this sapsucker to be “an abundant summer resident” and says:
They are among the earliest birds to arrive in the spring. The first bird of this species shot by me, In the spring of 1883, was obtained on March 13, and I have seen a few as late as November. On one of my collecting trips, the morning of April 4, 1883, while riding through a patch of pine timber, near Wood River, the principal stream running through the center of Kiamath Valley, I noticed a flock of these birds, at least twenty in number- They were very noisy, apparently glad to get back to their summer homes, and seemed to have an excellent time generally, flying from tree to tree and calling to each other.
As I wanted a couple of specimens, I was compelled to disturb their jollification; those procured were both males, and presumably the entire flock belonged to this sex. By April 20 they bad become very common, and some pairs at least were mated and had already selected their future domiciles, in every ease a good-sized live aspen tree. The males might at that time be heard in almost all directions drumming on some dry limb, generally the dead top of one of these trees. They scarcely seemed to do anything else.
Nesting: IIe says of the nesting habits in the Klamath Valley:
As far as my own observations go, healthy, smooth-barked aspens are always selected as suitable nesting sites by these birds. The trees used vary from 12 to 18 inches in diameter near the ground, and taper very gradually. The cavity is usually excavated below the first limb of the tree, say from 15 to 25 feet from the ground. The entrance hole seems to be ridiculously small for the size of the bird: perfectly circular, from 11,4 to 1æ inches in diameter only: so small, indeed, that It seems as if it took considerable effort for the bird to squeeze himself in and wriggle out of the hole.
The gourd-shaped excavation varies in depth from 6 to 10 inches, and it Is from 3 inches near the top to 4 or 5 inches wide at the bottom. The finer chips are allowed to remain in the bottom, forming the nest proper, on which the eggs are deposited. Frequently they are more than half covered by these chips. The interior of the entire excavation is most carefully smoothed off, which must consume considerable time, considering the tough, stringy, and elastic nature of the wood when filled with sap, making it even more difficult to work when partly decayed, which seems to be the case with nearly all the espens of any size. Probably eight or ten days are consumed in excavating a satisfactory nesting site. All the larger and coarser chips are dropped out of the hole and scattered about the base of the tree.
Johnson A. Neff (1928) says: “The nests of these birds are placed in whatever trees are abundant in their vicinity. In Kiamath County, in the foothills and in the lower valleys, alders, cottonwoods and aspens were utilized; in the higher altitudes, firs were the common site, with the alder and willow along the small streams. In the Willamette Valley the firs, cottonwoods, willows, alders, and others, are used indiscriminately.”
Near Blame, Wash., Mr. Dawson (Dawson and Bowles, 1909) found an almost inaccessible nest of this sapsucker 50 feet from the ground in a big fir stub, “sixteen feet around at the base, above the root bulge, and perfectly desolate of limbs.” lie managed to reach the nest with the help of a rope and cleats nailed on the barkless trunk. He says:
“By the time I had a hole large enough to thrust in the hand, the eggs were quite buried in chips and rotten wood. But when they were uncovered, they were seen to lie, seven of them, in two regular lines, four in the front rank with sides touching evenly, and three in the rear with points dove-tailed between.”
Harry S. Swarth (1924) also found some lofty nests in the Skeena River region of northern British Columbia; he writes: “During May and June a number of nests were found, mostly through seeing the old birds carrying food to the young. One was drilled in a live poplar, the tree a straight column with no branching limb save at the very top, the nest some seventy feet from the ground. Another was in a dead birch, sixty feet up. Many others were noted, all in birch or poplar, mostly dead trees, and no nest was less than fifty feet above the ground. One male bird collected had the abdomen bare of feathers. It obviously had been incubating eggs.”
Eggs: The red-breasted sapsucker lays four to seven eggs, usually five or six. Bendire (1895) describes them, as follows: “The eggs, when fresh and before blowing, like those of all Woodpeckers, show the yolk through the translucent shell, giving them a beautiful pinkish appearance, as well as a series of straight lines or streaks, of a more pronounced white than the rest of the shell, running toward and converging at the smaller axis of the egg. After blowing, the pink tint will be found to have disappeared and the egg changed to a pure, delicate white, the shell showing a moderate amount of luster. There is considerable variation in their shape, running as they do through all the different ovates to an elongated ovate.”
The measurements of 54 eggs average 23.61 by 17.51 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.40 by 17.78, 24.13 by 18.54, 21.84 by 17.27, and 23.11 by 16.26 millimeters.
Food: Mr. Neff (1928) lists 67 species of fruit, forest, and ornamental trees and shrubs that are known to have been tapped by the red-breasted sapsucker, showing that this species is not at all particular as to what kind of sap it drinks. A total of 64 stomachs were examined, representing every month in the year. “The stomach analyses revealed 40.7 percent of vegetable food, and 52.53 percent insect food.” Ants formed the bulk of the insect food, running as high as 80 percent in July; other items were boring beetles and their larvae, other beetles, weevils, caddiceflies, aphids, various flies, mites, and spiders. Fruit averaged less than 4 percent of the food and included elderberries, wild cherries, haw and dogwood berries. “No cultivated fruits were taken and seeds were almost a minus quantity. True cambium or soft inner bark averaged 31.35 percent; most of this was taken between October and April. Other bark, fibre, and miscellaneous vegetable matter averaged 5.14 percent.”
Bendire (1895) says: “Their food consists principally of grubs, larv~ of insects, ants, various species of lepidoptera, which they catch on the wing, like Flycatchers, and berries. * * * They seem to be especially fond of wild strawberries.”
Behavior: Charles A. Allen, of Nicasie, Calif., wrote to Major Bendire (1895): “These Woodpeckers are very fond of hanging to telegraph poles, and may be found drumming along the line of the Central Pacific Railroad through the Sierra Nevadas, where you can hear them beating a tattoo for hours at a time. If you try to approach one, as soon as a certain distance is reached the bird will sidle to the opposite side of the pole, and then keep peeping around the corner at whatever has excited his suspicions, and as soon as it thinks it has a good opportunity to escape it will fly away with a shrill cry, end keep the pole in line between it and yourself for protection. Here they are very shy, and remain very quiet if discovered.”
According to Bendire’s own experience: These birds are not at all shy during the breeding season, allowing you to approach them closely; but they have an extraordinarily keen sense of bearing. I frequently tried to sneak up to a tree close to my house which I knew bad been selected by a pair of these birds, to watch them at xvork, but I was invariably detected by the bird, no matter how carefully I tried to creep up, before I was able to get within 30 yards, even when she was at work on the inside of the cavity and could not possibly see me. The bird would cease working at once, her head would pop out of the hole for an instant, and the surroundings would be surveyed carefully. If I kept Out of sight and perfectly still, she would probably begin working again a few minutes afterward, but 11 I moved ever so little, without even making the least noise, in my own estimation, she would notice it and stop working again at once. If the tree were approached too closely, she would fly off, uttering at the same time a note resembling the word ‘jay,’ or ‘chile,’ several times repeated, which would invariably bring the male uround also, who had in the meantime kept himself busy In some other tree, either drumming or bunting for food. While the female was at work on the inside of the excavation the male would fly to the entrance, from time to time, and look In; * * * and at other times he would hang, for five or ten minutes even, just below the entrance to the burrow, in a dreamy sort of study, perfectly motionless and seemingly dazed.”
Mr. Neff (1928) writes:
They have not been found to be particularly quiet excepting during the better summer months. At other times they have been neither noticeably noisy nor silent. The outstanding features of their behavior have proven to be pugnacity and noise during the mating season and while incubating and feeding the young, and an extreme curiosity at other times. In many instances the writer has located them by utilizing this curiosity; sitting motionless on a log or rock after failing to find them, any sapsucker in the community would soon make its presence known by a characteristic interrogative call, at first from a distance, gradually drawing nearer.
In winter they seem to be quite belligerent, for on several occasions one has been located by the angry noise as If of a pitched battle; on closer investigation It would be found that the sapsucker was attempting to drive some other woodpecker, generally the Gairduer, from some favorite tree.
Voice: Bendire (1895) says: “While the nest was being rifled of its contents both parents flew about the lipper limbs of the tree, uttering a number of different sounding, plaintive sounds, like ‘peeye,’ ‘pinck,’ and ‘peurr,’ some of these resembling somewhat the purring of a cat when pleased and rubbing against your leg. I used to note the iifferent sounds in a small notebook at the very time, but scarcely ever put them dcwn alike; each time they appeared a trifle different to the ear, and it is a hard matter to express them exactly on paper.”
Mr. Dawson (Dawson and Bowles, 1909) says that while he was chopping out the nest the birds “made frequent approaches from a neighboring tree, crying kee-a, kee-aa, in helpless bewilderment.
When all was over, they a , g qu~-oo,: qu~-oo, never before heard, and reminding one generically of the Red-headed Woodpecker of boyhood days.”