What’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker?

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by dfaulder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

On a recent episode of Jeopardy, the correct question to an answer was, “What’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker?”

My ears perked up because I notice when birds get favorable attention on national television. And it’s a great question. To the uninitiated, yellow-bellied sapsucker may sound like a whimsical creature.

“Is it in the field guide?” they ask. “Right next to the ‘bleary-eyed bedthrasher,’ I’ll bet?”

Eastern woodpecker

“No,” I say. “It’s a woodpecker.” Four species of sapsuckers live in North America, but only the yellow-bellied is found here in the east. Williamson’s, red-breasted, and red-naped are all western species.

Sapsuckers are responsible for those evenly spaced holes you sometimes find on trees in late winter and early spring. When sap flows, it oozes from these “wells” and insects gather at the sweet liquid. Sapsuckers, warblers and even hummingbirds then visit the wells for banquets of sweet sap and protein-rich insects.

Sapsuckers also eat suet, and each winter I get descriptions of an unfamiliar bird at suet feeders. It’s about eight inches long, black and white with bold white wing bars, white rump, and a bright red forehead. Some have red throats (males), and others have white throats (females).

Prominent wing bars

Though most woodpeckers are primarily black and white, the prominent wing bars and red or white throat gives this one away. It’s the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Though some first-time observers might argue the point, yellow-bellied sapsuckers do indeed have yellow bellies. But the yellow is as pale as the red on a red-bellied woodpecker’s belly.

Sapsuckers usually head south for the winter, so they’re uncommon in January.

Arrive in spring

Though seldom heard during the winter, sapsuckers become easy to detect by ear in the spring. Their staccato drumming pattern is diagnostic. It sounds more like a Morse code signal than a rapid drum beat.

Because sapsuckers are migratory woodpeckers, they’re uncommon feeder birds. But by April, sapsuckers return to northern deciduous and evergreen forests where they nest.

The male selects the nest tree, often the same tree he used the year before. Both sexes then excavate the cavity, but the male does most of the work. The female conserves her energy for egg production.

Aspen or Poplar

More often than not, sapsuckers select a live aspen or poplar infected with a heart rot fungus. The fungus softens the inner heartwood and makes excavating the cavity easier. The unaffected hard outer wood protects the nest from predators such as raccoons that might try to tear into the rotting cavity.

After as long as 19 days, the cavity is complete. The female then lays one white egg each day for five or six days. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days. The male handles the night shift. During the day the male brings food to the nest for the female.

After hatching, the nestlings remain in the nest for another 24 to 28 days. During that time, the parents feed their young sap and a variety of insects. Sap accounts for as much as 20 percent of their diet.

Sipping sap

After young sapsuckers leave the nest, their primary job is to master the art of sipping sap. They stay with their parents and use the feeding stations the parents have already established. These stations are easy to recognize. Sapsuckers drill vertical columns and horizontal rows of sap wells along the trunks of a wide variety of trees. Sap wells have been observed on more than 275 species of both deciduous and coniferous trees.

Each well is about a quarter-inch in diameter and oozes a steady stream of sugary sap. Sapsuckers lap the sap up with their bristle-tipped tongues. The sap also attracts insects, so sapsuckers can meet most of their nutritional needs at sap wells. They aggressively defend their sap trees from hummingbirds, warblers, squirrels, and any other critters with a sweet tooth.

No real damage

Homeowners and orchardists sometimes curse sapsuckers for the harm they do to trees, but the damage is usually cosmetic. Healthy trees heal quickly; sapsuckers rarely cause major damage.

By summer’s end juvenile sapsuckers are independent, and most head south with the adults. If you see any stragglers in your backyard this winter, offer suet or, on mild days, hummingbird nectar.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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