Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Nature Notes: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Identification:  A medium-sized woodpecker, white strip running up its side and "messy" black and white barring on its back.  The throat and crown are completely red on a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker while the female throat is white.  Both have a pale yellow underside.  (These are not very good ID photos.  Cornell Labs has much better.)

Range:  The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory.  Females tend to migrate farther south than males, often traveling as far south as Panama.  Here in the Ozarks, we are in the bird's winter range.

Food:  A sapsucker eats fruit and forages in tree bark for insects, but is most noted for consuming tree sap.  It bores distinctive rows of holes in tree trunks and limbs.  From these holes, it laps (not sucks) sap with its brush-like tongue.  In the summer, a sapsucker feeds on the “phloem” sap, the sticky fluid that carries the nutrients produced in the leaves downward to other parts of the tree.  This sap is much thicker and contains more nutrients than the “xylem” sap tapped by humans in the spring for making syrup.  Researchers speculate that a sapsucker's saliva contains some kind of anticoagulant that inhibits the tree from sealing over the holes and stopping the sap flow.  A sapsucker will often choose to tap a wounded or weakened tree.  The sap of these trees may contain more amino acids and proteins.  Many other birds and other critters partake of the sap flows created by sapsuckers. (The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has much more information on Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.)

Photo by Cephas via Wikipedia.

The White Birch above shows the distinctive rows of holes bored by a sapsucker.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers overwintering here readily eat from our suet feeder.

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Lisa at Greenbow said...

These are great birds. We see them every winter. We usually get one in our garden from time to time during winter. They worked on a pine tree in our garden. It looked like the picture you have here with little holes all in rows. I am amazed every time I see this. Our pine tree had pine bark boreres. It was eventually killed. Too bad the Yellow-belly didn't get them all.

Pat - Arkansas said...

An interesting bird. I don't recall seeing any here but, who knows. I spotted a Downy Woodpecker for the first time this week. She was back at the suet feeder this afternoon. About 8" of snow on the ground here, and still falling, though lightly.

Tammie Lee said...

I am not sure what kind of woodpeckers i have now, but I do enjoy watching them. seen some flickers too and they are a wonderful flash of color in my wintry wood. thanks for the woodpecker post.

Kathie Brown said...

Very educational post, Marvin! We used to see these in AZ once in awhile in winter. Always a treat and a challenge to distinguish from our more expected red-naped sapsucker! I didn't know about the enzyme sap thinning thing. Kind of makes the bird similar to a mosquito!

Deb said...

Wonderful report, Marvin (& Jo!). Thank you for a view of the eastern birds.

jabblog said...

What a fascinating little bird! I guess it's not particularly popular with foresters or arboriculturists but while it's eating suet it's not causing problems :-)

Mike B. @ said...

We have Red-breasted sapsuckers here in Oregon. And the white birch across the street has about the same number of wells that yours does!

Carver said...

These are wonderful shots of the sapsucker and great information too.

Unknown said...

No shit. Those holes are all from the sapsuckers? Whoa!
Until this week I hadn't even heard of them. Larry posted about them this week too.
Some fascinating birds.
Lovely shots too that you got there!

Crafty Green Poet said...

that poor sapsucker looks so cold!

Iowa Gardening Woman said...

What great shots of the sapsucker, I have not seen one in several years, and the photo of the holes left in the tree from the bird is amazing, he really worked that tree over good!

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

A beautiful bird and I love learning about the birds from you.

I did not know any of that -- now I would REALLY love to see a sapsucker "in person".... how interesting that the work they do provides sustenance for other birds. Amazing.