The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

December 8, 2011

“Hey, have you ever seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker?” That’s a question we birders often get when you tell folks you’re a bird-watcher.  Many people think this species of woodpecker is a mythical bird because its name is often used in jest.  But it is one bird that truly lives up to its name: both males and females have yellow bellies and tree sap is their favorite diet.  Males have red crowns and throats, while females have red crowns but white throats.  Immature birds are pretty dull, lacking the red color and being brownish and non-descript, except for the white stripe on their sides that is their most visible identifying mark.

Sapsuckers have drilling techniques distinct from other woodpeckers; you can tell a sapsucker has visited a tree when you see rows of round or squarish holes drilled into the tree trunk.  (The birds feed on the sap that oozes from the holes and also eat the insects that get trapped in the sap.)  Hummingbirds will often visit sapsucker “wells” to feed, and sometimes a Ruby crowned Kinglet Hummingbird can be seen on Indian Ridge at Mount Auburn, feeding on the sap from the drillings of a sapsucker, like this one that John “Garp” Harrison has photographed.  

Sapsuckers, like Cedar Waxwings, occasionally become intoxicated from sap.  I remember one spring when a sapsucker was hanging on to a mountain ash with one claw for a long time-clearly unaware of the audience who had gathered as the bird recovered from his hangover!

Sapsuckers are relatively shy, often moving around the trunk or limb to avoid being studied.  They are very quiet when drilling holes; their tapping is surprisingly soft.  Their courtship drumming is also quite unique, beginning with a rapid series of taps that slow almost to a pause and end with one or two double notes.  They have also been recorded drumming on metal roofs -desperate, perhaps to find a female!

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is migratory.  It is only in recent years that many more sapsuckers are being found in our area during winter.  Mount Auburn is one such place, where as many as FIVE individuals have been recorded in the winter.  Some of their favorite trees in winter are the Nikko Fir, Cedar of Lebanon, Atlas Cedar, White Fir, and the Hickories.  Migrant birds show up in the spring about mid-April and are usually gone by early May.  In spring, the sapsuckers are often found on Mountain Ash and some of the many Crabapple and Apple trees at Mount Auburn.  They are not here in the summer and the closest area where you could find them in Massachusetts would be near Mt. Watatic or Mt.Wachusett in the central part of the state.

Photo by John “Garp” Harrison.

About the Author: Bob Stymeist

Bob Stymeist is Bird Observer’s Bird Sightings Compiler and a regular bird walk leader for the Friends of Mount Auburn.

View all posts by Bob Stymeist →

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