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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus varius ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

On a walk through the forest you might spot rows of shallow holes in tree bark. In the East, this is the work of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, an enterprising woodpecker that laps up the leaking sap and any trapped insects with its specialized, brush-tipped tongue. Attired sharply in barred black-and-white, with a red cap and (in males) throat, they sit still on tree trunks for long intervals while feeding. To find one, listen for their loud mewing calls or stuttered drumming.

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Keys to identification Help

Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are fairly small woodpeckers with stout, straight bills. The long wings extend about halfway to the tip of the stiff, pointed tail at rest. Often, sapsuckers hold their crown feathers up to form a peak at the back of the head.

  • Color Pattern

    Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are mostly black and white with boldly patterned faces. Both sexes have red foreheads, and males also have red throats. Look for a long white stripe along the folded wing. Bold black-and-white stripes curve from the face toward a black chest shield and white or yellowish underparts.

  • Behavior

    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.

  • Habitat

    Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers live in both hardwood and conifer forests up to about 6,500 feet elevation. They often nest in groves of small trees such as aspens, and spend winters in open woodlands. Occasionally, sapsuckers visit bird feeders for suet.

Range Map Help

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Adult male
    • Stocky woodpecker with stout, chisel-like bill
    • Boldly marked head with red crown and throat on male
    • Black bib and pale yellow wash on breast
    • Large white stripe along wing
    • © Jim McCree, Orono, Maine, May 2012
  • Adult female

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Adult female
    • Medium-sized, stocky woodpecker
    • White stripe along wing
    • Black bib
    • Female has red crown and pale, not red, throat
    • © Raymond Belhumeur/PFW, Longueuil, Quebec, Canada, April 2009
  • Adult male

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Adult male
    • Small, stocky, boldly-marked woodpecker
    • Male shows bright red crown and throat
    • Black bib with pale yellow area surrounding it
    • Rear crown feathers often raised to form crest
    • © Stuart Oikawa, Manitoba, Canada, April 2011
  • Adult female

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Adult female
    • Small woodpecker with stout, pointed bill
    • White stirpe along wing
    • Red crown and boldly marked face
    • Black bib
    • © Dwayne Java, Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada, April 2012
  • Juvenile

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Juvenile
    • Small woodpecker with stout, pointed bill
    • Crown feathers often raised to form crest
    • Bold white stripe on wing
    • Juveniles mostly dusky brown below with pale yellow belly and undertail
    • © Christopher L. Wood, New York
  • Immature

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Immature
    • Small, stocky woodpecker with stout bill
    • Bold white stripe along wing
    • Immature birds develop red crown in their first fall and winter
    • Immatures show buffy/golden spangling on back and breast
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Green Water Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada, September 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Red-naped Sapsucker

    Adult male
    • Occurs in Western states; little to no overlap
    • Red patch on nape (back of neck) as well as crown
    • Black outline around red throat patch is not continuous
    • Female Red-naped (not shown) has pale chin
    • © Lois Manowitz, Tucson, Arizona, November 2009
  • Adult male

    Red-breasted Sapsucker

    Adult male
    • Occurs along West Coast; does not overlap
    • Entire head and breast is red
    • © Bill Corwin, Washougal, Washington, May 2008
  • Adult male

    Downy Woodpecker

    Adult male
    • Smaller than Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with tiny, stubby bill
    • Plain white underparts
    • Black crown
    • Small white spots on wings instead of large, vertical stripe
    • © Kelly Azar, February 2011
  • Adult female

    Hairy Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • Larger than Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
    • White patch on center of back, spots on wings
    • Black crown
    • Solid white underparts
    • © Rockytopk9, Tennessee, March 2012

Similar Species

Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers have clean white underparts and lack the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s bold white wing patches. Male Hairy and Downy have red on the back of the head, not on the crown or throat. In a narrow zone along the western edge of its range, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker meets the very similar Red-naped Sapsucker. Look for the Red-naped Sapsucker’s small red patch on the nape, or back of the neck; it also has more crisply organized black-and-white barring on the back. Two other sapsucker species are also rarely seen alongside Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the West. Red-breasted Sapsuckers of the Pacific Coast have a mostly red head and upper breast. Williamson’s Sapsuckers occur in western mountains; males have unbarred black backs while females are barred gray and brown, without white wing patches or red on the head.

Regional Differences

None.

Backyard Tips

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers aren’t regular bird feeder visitors, although they may visit suet feeders. And if you have young birch or maple trees in your yard and you live in the sapsucker’s range, you just might get to see one drilling its sapwells firsthand.

Find This Bird

Look for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in young deciduous forests. To find a sapsucker’s territory, keep an eye out for their distinctive, neatly organized rows of sapwells. You’ll mostly likely find them tending to their sapwells, but you might also see them perched at the tips of tree branches when hunting for insects. In spring, listen for their mewing calls and their distinctive irregular drumming. They cling motionless to trees while calling, so if you hear a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, look closely at the trees around you for their sharply contrasting black-and-white face stripes and the bright-red patches on their heads.