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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.

Birds of North America Online
Big Day 2014

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.1–8.7 in
18–22 cm
Wingspan
13.4–15.7 in
34–40 cm
Weight
1.5–1.9 oz
43–55 g
Other Names
  • Pic maculé (French)
  • Carpintero de paso, Chupasavia maculado, Chupasavia vientreamarillo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • 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.
  • The sapwells made by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers attract hummingbirds, which also feed off the sap flowing from the tree. In some parts of Canada, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds rely so much on sapwells that they time their spring migration with the arrival of sapsuckers. Other birds as well as bats and porcupines also visit sapsucker sapwells.
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been found drilling sapwells in more than 1,000 species of trees and woody plants, though they have a strong preference for birches and maples.
  • The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker frequently uses human-produced materials to help in its territorial drumming. Street signs and metal chimney flashing amplify the irregular tapping of a territorial sapsucker. The sapsucker seems to suffer no ill effects of whacking its bill on metal, and a bird will return to a favorite sign day after day to pound out its Morse code-like message.
  • 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.
  • The oldest known Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was 7 years, 9 months old. It was banded in New Jersey and found 6 years later in South Carolina.

Habitat


Forest

In spring and summer, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers favor young forests and edge habitat, especially areas regenerating from timber harvesting. There they find lots of fast-growing trees ripe for sapwells (and since they can spend half their time or more tending to or feeding from their sapwells, sapsuckers needs lots of trees for tapping). So unlike most woodpecker species, sapsuckers don’t rely on dead trees for feeding, although they do search for trees with decayed heartwood or dead limbs for their cavity nests. On their wintering grounds, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers aren’t as selective in habitat, as they’re found from bottomland hardwood forests to as high as 10,000 feet, though never in pure conifer stands. In winter, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can be found in forests of hickory or pines and oaks.

Food


Insects

As the name indicates, sapsuckers rely on sap as a main food source. Just like people who tap maple trees to make maple syrup, these birds drill their wells in early spring. Sapsucker wells are neatly organized, with several holes drilled in horizontal rows. The bird first drills narrow, circular wells into the tree’s xylem—the inner part of the trunk—to feed on sap moving up to the branches in early spring. 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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1 in
2–2.6 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
10–13 days
Nestling Period
25–30 days
Egg Description
White.
Condition at Hatching
Bare and blind at birth with pink skin and a gray bill; eyes open at 8 days.
Nest Description

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are cavity nesters. The male does most of the work excavating the cavity over about 2 to 3 weeks. No lining is placed within the nest; the eggs are laid on wood chips left over from the excavation. The entrance hole is small, only about 1.5 inches in diameter, but the cavity itself may be 10 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers choose many of the same tree species for nesting that they use for drilling wells, including aspen, birch, maple, beech, and elm. Trees used for nesting are often alive but are usually infected with a fungus that causes the tree’s heartwood or sapwood to decay, making excavation easier. The male chooses the nest tree most of the time. Cavity nests may be reused for several breeding seasons, for up to 7 years.

Behavior


Bark Forager

Apart from their behavior at sapwells (see Food section) Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers behave much like other woodpeckers, hitching up and down trees along the bark and leaning away from the trunk, using their stiff tail feathers for support. They fly in a woodpecker’s typical up-and-down, bouncing or swooping manner. They spend most of their time at their sapwells, either drilling them, licking sap and any insects caught in it, or chasing off other birds (such as hummingbirds) that may be attracted to the sap. They also perch at the tips of tree branches when hunting for flying insects, and hop on the ground to forage for ants. In early spring, before mating, sapsucker pairs engage in playful pre-courtship behavior, with one sapsucker chasing the other around tree trunks and branches. Courting birds will land on a tree and face each other with bills and tails raised, throat feathers fluffed out and crest feathers raised, swinging their heads from side to side. This is the same behavior they use when aggressively facing off with sapsuckers of the same sex. Sapsucker mating pairs stay together through the nesting season and raising of young, and often (but not always) reunite for subsequent breeding seasons, though it seems their fidelity may not be to their mate so much as the nesting area or even the particular nest tree.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker numbers slightly increased between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 10 million with 53 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 79 percent breeding in Canada, and 31 percent wintering in Mexico. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List. In the past, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were considered pests in fruit orchards and shot on sight, but that’s no longer the case; there may even be more sapsuckers now than in presettlement times, as many of the old-growth forests of the past have been converted into the early successional forests that sapsuckers favor.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Short- to long-distance migrant. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers depart their breeding range in September and early October for wintering grounds in the southern U.S., Mexico, West Indies, and Central America. They arrive back north in May. Females tend to migrate farther south than males, with a ratio of more than three females to one male having been counted in Central America.

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.