SIB “Bird of the Week” – Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus varius
Length:  7.1-8.7″; Wingspan: 13.4-15.7″; Weight: 1.5-1.9 oz.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Ed Konrad
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – Ed Konrad

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory. Although a few individuals remain throughout much of the winter in the southern part of the breeding range, most head farther south, going as far south as Panama. Females tend to migrate farther south than do males.

A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has a red cap but not the nape. It has a striped face and a prominent white stripe on side. It’s black bib, patterned underparts also distinguish it from the red-bellied woodpecker.

20-yellow-bellied-sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – Ed Konrad

As the name indicates, sapsuckers rely on sap as a main food source. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker makes two kinds of holes in trees to harvest sap. Round holes extend deep in the tree and are not enlarged. The sapsucker inserts its bill into the hole to probe for sap. Rectangular holes are shallower, and must be maintained continually for the sap to flow. The sapsucker licks the sap from these holes, and eats the cambium of the tree too. New holes usually are made in a line with old holes, or in a new line above the old. Then, after the tree leafs out, the sapsucker begins making shallower, rectangular wells in the phloem, the part of the trunk that carries sap down from the leaves. This sap can be more than 10 percent sugar. These phloem wells must be continually maintained with fresh drilling, so the sap will continue to flow. Sapsuckers tend to choose sick or wounded trees for drilling their wells, and they choose tree species with high sugar concentrations in their sap, such as paper birch, yellow birch, sugar maple, red maple, and hickory. They drill wells for sap throughout the year, on both their breeding and wintering grounds. In addition to sap, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also eat insects (mostly ants) and spiders, gleaning them from beneath a tree’s bark like other woodpeckers. And at times they perch at the edge of a tree branch and launch after flying insects to capture them in midair, like a flycatcher. Sapsuckers are also attracted to orchards, where they drill wells in the trees and eat fruit.

Yellow-belled Sapsuckers perch upright on trees, leaning on their tails like other woodpeckers. They feed at sapwells—neat rows of shallow holes they drill in tree bark. They lap up the sugary sap along with any insects that may get caught there. Sapsuckers drum on trees and metal objects in a distinctive stuttering pattern. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers live in both hardwood and conifer forests up to about 6,500 feet elevation. Occasionally, sapsuckers visit bird feeders for suet.

Holes created by Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Holes created by Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Sapsuckers are common on Seabrook in winter but are less noisy and may be less obvious than other woodpeckers. They are “common but inconspicuous.” Look for their “wells” – drilled holed lined up around the trunk and marking trees to see where they feed.

Check out this cool YouTube video of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker eating from the already drilled holes in a tree:

If you would like to learn more about this bird visit:

Article submitted by:  Judy Morr
Photographs provided by: Ed Konrad

This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents.  When possible we will use photographs taken by our members.    Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.

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Author: sibirders

SEABROOK ISLAND BIRDERS / “watching, learning, protecting” Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) are residents, renters and guests of Seabrook Island, SC who have an interest in learning, protecting and providing for the well-being of the incredible variety of birds that inhabit Seabrook Island throughout the year.

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