For the Birds Radio Program: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Original Air Date: May 16, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the sweet-loving Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

Probably the most maligned of all woodpecker species is the little Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This 1 1/2 ounce bundle of trouble is the only Northland woodpecker known to do consistent damage to living trees. All woodpeckers drill holes in trees for food and nesting, but other species use the forked tips of their long tongues to pull out damaging insects from the wood. The sapsucker doesn’t have barbs on its short tongue—it has a brushed tip something like a cat’s, for efficiently lapping up sap.

This woodpecker returns to the Northwoods at the same time in late winter as people tapping for maple sugar. For lack of a bucket, the sapsucker drills its holes to tip upward around the trunk of a tree—as the sap collects, the bird returns to lap it up, along with any insects that have arrive. It drills the holes in a neat circle all the way around the trunk. When one circle of holes runs dry, it drills out a second, and sometimes a third, fourth, and on, until the tree is so literally sapped that it sometimes dies. Foresters have learned to accept the damage as a necessary evil, learning that controlling sapsucker numbers is far more expensive than the damage they do. Their greatest damage is done to ornamental and orchard trees.

But people with open minds concede that at least the sapsucker is fun to watch. It’s the easiest woodpecker to observe, since it tends to stay in one small stand of trees most of the day throughout the breeding season. And as much damage as one might do to an individual tree, it seems to choose only a few trees each season to tap—most of the others in the vicinity are left untouched. The sap running from a Sapsucker’s holes attracts other birds, like warblers and other woodpeckers, flying squirrels, and a variety of insects which in turn attract flycatchers. Hummingbirds are especially fond of feeding from sapsucker drill holes, and can often be seen shoulder to shoulder with sapsuckers, all sipping the sweet fluid together.

For some reason sapsuckers particularly enjoy the sap from mountain ash trees, in spite of the fact that this sap has a bitter taste. Major Charles Bendire, an ornithologist of the late 1800’s, believed that the attraction was due to the intoxicating properties of mountain ash. He noted that sometimes sapsuckers sat stupefied after feeding heavily on mountain ash sap, and wrote that “It is well known that some of our birds indulge in such disreputable practices, and possibly this species must be included in the number, as there are sots among birds as well as among the genus Homo.”

In the Northland Sapsuckers usually lay 5 or 6 pure white eggs some time in late May or June. They make their nest hole so small that the parents sometimes have to struggle to squeeze through it. The male incubates the eggs and young by night, the female by day. Like Downy Woodpeckers, sapsucker babies are extremely noisy—their yells in the woods are what has led me to many of their nests. Since predators are at least as keen as birdwatchers, one might think that baby woodpeckers might have evolved to sit quieter, but there is obviously some factor that we humans haven’t begun to fathom that allows them to flourish in spite of their noisy youth. And a Northland spring wouldn’t be the same without their strange, irregular drumming and their mewing calls.

(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”