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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Life History


Forests 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. Back to top


InsectsAs 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityYellow-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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 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.
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Bark ForagerApart 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. Back to top


Low Concern

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker numbers increased nearly 0.9% per year between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 14 million and rates them 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. In the past, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were considered pests in fruit orchards and were shot on sight, but that’s no longer the case. There may even be more sapsuckers now than in pre-settlement times, as many of the old-growth forests of the past have been converted into the early successional forests that sapsuckers favor.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Walters, Eric L., Edward H. Miller and Peter E. Lowther. (2002). Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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