Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

As I walk around in our woodland garden I often hear a slow, irregular beat as if someone is sending a message via Morse code. This is the sound of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. I am seeing a lot of them in our garden now. They are highly migratory birds and overwinter in the Southern part of the U.S. where sap is more readily available to them at this time of year.


Sapsuckers drill holes in uniform rows or columns (or both) in over 200 species of native trees but they seem to prefer oaks, ashes, and maples. They often select trees that are wounded or weakened from insects, disease, lightning, or wind. It is thought that the sap from trees in poor health contain higher levels of protein and amino acids. From where I sit this is a win-win collaboration for the birds and our gardens.


These woodpeckers feed on the sap by licking it up with their tongue which resembles a paintbrush. Since trees usually seal over wounds to prevent sap from being lost you may wonder how the sapsuckers keep the sap flowing so abundantly. According to the Smithsonian, researchers believe that the sapsucker saliva may contain a substance that acts as an anticoagulant that prevents sap from clogging up and sealing the holes.


Sapsuckers are one of the few animals that are capable of getting the phloem sap from trees (as opposed to the xylem sap which humans harvest for syrup). Phloem sap is more nutritious and therefore many other animals like to feed from the sap wells the sapsuckers make available. Hummingbirds, warblers, nuthatches, cedar waxwings, other woodpeckers, bats, and squirrels will eat the sap and the insects that are attracted to these holes.

Rufous Hummingbird

The rufous hummingbirds (see post here) that are overwintering in my garden are almost certainly feeding from these wells. The sap is very similar to flower nectar in the amount of nutrients and sugar it offers and makes a great substitute when flowers are not blooming. I read that the yellow-bellied sapsucker has been known to feed at hummingbird feeders too. That I would like to see!


I have watched them at the suet feeders on cold mornings but usually they are busy in the trees and blend in pretty well until the light shows off their red cap.

They will leave my area in spring (mid-April/May) to head North where they will nest/breed during the summer months.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is February 15th -18th. Mark your calendars so you can participate. Also, if you want to learn more there is a FREE webinar (here) on January 29th from 2:00-3:00 EST.

16 comments:

  1. Sapsuckers are fascinating birds, with their particular talents. It's neat how by getting food, they help feed a lot of other wildlife from the sap as well. I see them every so often in the lot next door to us, which used to have a bunch of dying trees (though now it's been cleared and built on). I've heard that sapsuckers can cause problems for even healthy trees sometimes, though.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, thanks for the reminder about the bird count. I didn't do it last year, but maybe I'll get my act together and keep track this year! We get these during the spring and fall. But the Downy WPs, which look similar, are here year-round. I heard some woodpeckers tapping on the trees at the park today. It made me think about spring. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Our woodpeckers visit the birdfeeder now. I think once the sap starts to flow I will hear them in the nearby woods.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great pictures. I think Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers migrate through our area, but I've never seen one. We do have Downy, Hairy, Red Bellied, and Northern Flickers.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Love these little birds! I get so excited when I hear them knocking on the wood. It becomes a hunt to find and see them! Great photos! Interesting information about their saliva. It's amazing how nature adapts to their needs.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great shots of this bird. I find the smaller woodpeckers hard to identify. Often they are so quick and they're bellies are hidden against a tree. You seem to have gotten a good look at his belly, I can make out the yellow tint to it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great sapsucker pictures! Usually I either just catch glimpses or see the telltale drill holes on the trees.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are pretty amazing birds. You got some wonderful photos of it. So they can access the phloem -- just incredible.
    I will check out the webinar. thanks for the link.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My calendar is marked but we see very few birds here due to snow on the ground during GBBC. I have not seen sapsuckers in my garden but we have several species of woodpeckers.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I learned something I didn't know about the Yellow-bellied sapsucker. I wonder if there might be some medical use that could be derived from the composition of the anticoagulant in their saliva? It is interesting that they make sap available to such a wide range of other birds.

    ReplyDelete
  11. What pretty birds, love the photos! :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Very informative post. I didn't realize that the sap was shared by other birds. Great photos too :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. I cannot participate in the GBBC this year but will have a post on some unusual finds this past year. I find it really interesting having the woodpeckers and hummingbirds at the same time of year. We get the Downy with the hummers. The sapsuckers do the hummers a great service when the weather turns the flowers chilled. Nice captures!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Karin, your photos are beautiful--great captures. I love watching the sapsuckers in our forest. We have a few that come to the trees that are very close to the house--and of course, just as I grab my camera, the dogs start barking and chase them away. Sigh. I didn't realize until this year that some hummingbirds stay in our area--I thought they all migrated further south. I planned to leave at least one feeder out for them, but of course--it's empty. Thank you for the reminder to make some more food! ;-) We definitely plan to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count--thanks for that reminder, too! Hope you are well!

    ReplyDelete
  15. It's amazing they don't get headaches! Good luck in your bird count x

    ReplyDelete
  16. A very interesting post! I see these once in a while. They visit the suet feeder, but mostly I see them on the trees. That red really stands out. Looking forward to the bird count! :)

    ReplyDelete

"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment...I love hearing from you!