Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and their Feeding Holes

The only completely migratory woodpecker in the Eastern U.S., the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), is one of my favorite winter visitors to our woods. I've written about them before, which you can read here. But, today I'm focusing on their feeding holes.

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker taking a quick peek at what I'm doing

This fairly shy bird is more often heard than seen, but a walk through our forest reveals all the signs of its presence. Rings of closely spaced holes band trees, especially the maples and hickories. These holes are often mistaken for insect damage; however, insect damage will have fewer, smaller holes that are more randomly placed. This tree has been a repeat customer for these industrious woodpeckers.


Sapsuckers bore two types of holes into trees. Round holes extend deep into the xylem, where the sapsuckers lick up sap that is moving up into the branches.

yellow-bellied sapsucker sapwells

After the trees leaf out, shallow, square holes, that penetrate the phloem, ooze sap that they lap up with their short brushy tongues. These shallow holes must continually be maintained for sap to flow.

a close look at the holes created by sapsuckers

Phloem tree sap has a similar content to flower nectar. Other animals, who like this free-flowing sap are also attracted to these holes such as chipmunks, bats, hummingbirds, orioles, warblers, nuthatches and butterflies. Conversely, in early spring you may see yellow-bellied sapsuckers visiting your hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders.


New holes are made in the same, horizontal line as older holes or a new line directly above the old one. This makes for an unmistakable pattern.


This tree has been a favorite of this male sapsucker this winter. See how well he blends in with the bark. His mottled feathers against the tree trunk look like shadows and dappled sunlight. It is only when he lifts his head revealing a flashy bright red head or when he clings to the side of the trunk that he is more noticeable. Of course the drilling will give him away every time.


Sapsuckers will use many species of trees and woody plants, but they prefer trees with higher sugar content such as paper/yellow birch, hickory and sugar/red maple. They are often seen in the Southeast in hickory/pine/oak forests.


The main source of food for yellow-bellied sapsuckers, however, isn't sap, but insects such as beetles, ants, moths and dragonflies. However, when they visit our garden during the winter months, insects are not always readily available. They will eat  fruit and berries if they can find them and when those are scarce they go for the sap.


Not everyone appreciates these active birds, but I enjoy having them around. It is relatively rare for a tree to die from numerous rows of wells. I have yet to see it happen in our woods and we have many that are decorated with their artistic drilling. Besides, the death of a tree is part of the dynamic nature of woodland habitats.

These vibrant woodpeckers will be leaving us in spring to make their journey to their breeding ground in the northern U.S. and Canada. Hummingbirds often follow their migration using sapsucker holes as a source of nectar and protein when blooms are sparse.

15 comments:

  1. That is just fascinating!! The holes in the trees are so precisely laid out - just amazing. I must get out back to our wooded area to see if there is any evidence of sapsuckers on our trees. I've never seen one, but as you point out, they tend to be shy (although obviously not around you!!).

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    1. You'll have to let me know if you find signs in your neck of the woods as they are breeding there. I wonder if they tend to eat more insects and less sap.

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  2. It's always a joy to see the sapsuckers return, because that means the hummingbirds won't be far behind. I've been tracking the Sapsuckers for the past several years, and they seem to precede the hummers by about two to three weeks (at least in my garden). Great photos, Karin!

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    1. That sounds about right, Beth. When we had our Rufous hummingbirds here a few years ago they often fed at the sapsucker holes. Pretty cool relationship they have.

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  3. Very interesting Karin! And of course great photos to accompany the article!

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  4. Lovely birds and I am thrilled to have one stop by whenever. Thanks for sharing their story.

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    1. They are a source of entertainment in winter. Their call is very distinct so even if I don't always see them I know they are there.

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  5. I am impressed that you got pictures! I think all I've ever seen are the sapsucker holes.

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    1. I do have to be quick about it. They love to sneak around the other side of the tree and play peak-a-boo.

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  6. Enjoyed this post. I like woodpeckers generally, this is a species I never get to see.

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  7. I have seen these rows of holes on trees before and thought they were due to insects. Now I know to be on the outlook for the yellow-bellied sapsucker! The photo at the beginning of the post is adorable!

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  8. We get them here too. The trees always look so interesting.

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  9. Karin this was fascinating. I have never seen these birds around here and definitely not their feeding holes.

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  10. Ive had bad luck with a sap sucker, every fall it has been visiting our new oak tree in the yard and it kills each branch it visits. The tree is young, and I've had to literally cut limbs off every summer after the bird visited last fall. It only comes for a couple three weeks on its way south but in that time desimates this young oak. Ive tried hanging shinny objects and fake owls but it doesn't care. Even tried a suet feeder to see if it would go for the easy food instead.
    Very frustrated because this is a main front tree and grows so.slow its like starting over every spring.

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