| Jul 10, 2008

Outdoors - July 10, 2008

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Outdoors in the LandO'Lakes - July 10, 2008 The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes byLorraine Julien

I’ve always been intrigued by the name of this member of the Woodpecker family and, after seeing them, I find they are as colourful and fascinating as their name suggests. It is now late June but next spring, in early April, listen for the drumming sound that announces the arrival of the male Sapsuckers trying to entice the females, which arrive about a week later. Snow does not seem to deter these birds as they arrive here when the sap is starting to flow.

Other members of the Woodpecker family have really long, barb-tipped tongues which allow them to reach into really deep cavities for their insect prey. In contrast, Sapsuckers have shorter tongues coated with fine hairs to help them lap up the sap. As they drill rows of tiny holes through the bark of trees, they remove the nutritious inner bark and, as the sap oozes out, insects and other birds are also attracted to the free food. The insects, trapped by the sticky sap, help to supplement the Sapsucker’s diet. Squirrels and, later on, hummingbirds and yellow-rumped warblers also enjoy this delicacy. Since there is lots of food to go around, this woodpecker doesn’t seem to mind the freeloaders.

Sapsuckers are not fussy about the type of trees they choose as they will tap almost any tree or shrub; however, they do prefer birch, poplar, maple and fruit trees. I’ve noticed some of our hemlocks, in particular, are covered in neat rows of tiny little holes, which don’t appear to do any short-term harm. The holes are in real contrast to those made in trees by other types of woodpeckers.

I find these birds to be quite striking and are fairly easy to identify at about 7-1/2” – 8-1/2” long, black and white above with a long white wing stripe. Males have a red crown and red throat while females in the east usually have a white throat. Of course, they all have a pale yellow underside.

The birds drill a nest cavity in a dead or dying tree, often near water, and quite often in poplars that have been infected with a type of fungus which rots the centre of the tree but leaves the outer sapwood alive. A few wood chips are left in the nest site as a bed for the 3 to 6 white eggs that are laid. Offspring are fed sap but also ants and other insects. It’s interesting to note that the bugs are softened for the little ones by pounding them on bark or using a tree fungus “shelf” as a “workbench”.

There are three species of Yellow-bellies and they range all over the U.S. and Canada, migrating as far south as Panama.

Please feel free to report any observations to to Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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