Friday, March 5, 2010

LOOK FOR: Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

yellow bellied sapsucker on tree
Photo credit: Beth Fishkind
As we get all excited about the sap running, so do other critters. Perhaps first among them is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, who winters in the south. Around now, the sapsuckers start migrating north, following this rich food source as each successive latitude warms up enough to start the flow.

Sapsuckers make a series of round holes in a tree's bark, usually lined up in efficient little rows. They then lap up the sap that comes out -- sometimes returning to holes over and over as the sap continues to ooze.

In addition to their their distinctive holes, sapsuckers are a distinctive-looking bird. Like other woodpeckers, they've got mottled black and whitish feathers on their back and wings. Both males and females have a red spot on the top of their head; males also have a red throat. The belly has just a hint of yellow that you won't be able to detect without exactly the right light -- the picture above may be the yellowest I've ever seen.

yellow-bellied sapsucker and holes
Photo credit: New Jersey Birds
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is considered a "keystone" species by some ecologists because many other birds rely on them. It's a hard time of year to find food, and other species -- including kinglets, warblers, phoebes, and even hummingbirds -- will follow behind the sapsuckers to lap up sap or insects.

But sapsuckers don't subsist entirely on sugar -- good thing, because the sap doesn't flow all year.  The sapsucker may also make rectangular holes that allow them to get to the tree's phloem, which they eat. And, like other woodpeckers, they eat a lot of insects. Even when the sap is running, many insects either get uncovered by drilling into the tree, or are themselves attracted to the sap.

But no other woodpecker in our area makes such systematic holes in the trees. If you see a tidy little row, it was probably a sapsucker.

sapsucker holes
Photo credit: we'moon in the woods
In the wild: You can find sapsuckers throughout the open woods of our region. If you see some holes actively oozing sap, hang out quietly for a little while and see who comes by.

In your yard: Don't worry, sapsuckers generally do not cause serious damage to trees -- the wounds they make are pretty shallow. Sapsuckers come to the large oak tree in our backyard all the time, and it's going strong.

We read of one photographer who attracted sapsuckers to his yard by drilling holes in an upright log and filling them with corn syrup. Cheating? You decide. It must have been quite a sugar rush for the birds!

Have you seen sapsuckers lately? Let us know.

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.


Anonymous said...

In your yard: I have lost all 3 of my holly trees to the sapsuckers. These 25 year old trees lost limb after limb due to the encircling holes the sapsuckers drilled. The trees eventually bled to death. When they started on my japanese maple I draped long narrow strips of brightly striped cloth on the branches. These resemble snakes and the birds moved back into the woods.

bill erhardt said...

"The belly has just a hint of yellow that you won't be able to detect without exactly the right light -- the picture above may be the yellowest I've ever seen."

The yellow belly is most visible from below when the sapsucker is in flight.

Anonymous said...

During the big snow we went for a hike on the Billy Goat Trail. Saw a tree dripping with sap with several songbirds at it, just like you describe. It was the first time I had noticed that behavior.

Anonymous said...

There are 3 tall pine trees out in front of our condo/townhouse on 16th Street (very near Meridian Hill Park), and since January we have seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker visiting (usually in the morning). I assume those pine trees are part of his home territory. He is a very cute bird.

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