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Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers

Have you ever noticed an almost straight line of holes gracing the trees in your yard or neighborhood? Most people generally identify these holes as belonging to a woodpecker, but only one species in our region feeds in a horizontal line: the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are small woodpeckers with chisel-like bills and black and white bodies. Both males and females have white patterned faces with red foreheads and black “mustaches.” Males also sport red throats encircled by a black “bib.”

Photo of: bird on feeder

Female; by Kerry Wixted

Photo of: Sapsucker on tree

Male; photo by Steven Kirsting, Flickr CC by NC ND 2.0

These striking birds can be found throughout much of the eastern U.S. and the Midwest in winter. They often breed in Canada and a few northern states, but a disjunct breeding population has also been documented along the Appalachian Mountains. Occasional yellow-bellied sapsuckers have been spotted breeding in Garrett County as well. If you encounter an active yellow-bellied sapsucker nest in Maryland, please consider reporting it to our Natural Heritage Program.

Photo of: Tree with holes drilled horizontally and bird

Here you can see the horizontal drill wells; photo by Andrew Morrffew, Flickr CC by 2.0

As you can imagine, yellow-bellied sapsuckers primarily rely upon sap, particularly in the spring. They create two types of holes—round holes for deep drilling into the tree and rectangular holes that are shallow and must be continually probed for sap flow. Often, sick or old trees are preferred for drilling, as well as trees with high sugar concentrations, like maples. Few trees will succumb to sapsucker injuries.

In addition to sap, they also feed on insects and spiders, often picked or gleaned off trees. Occasionally, sapsuckers will consume fruit. Interestingly enough, sap wells created by sapsuckers provide an early food source for migrating hummingbirds.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers make irregular drilling noises as they excavate trees for sap, and they make several calls, such as a nasally and often repeated “beaaa” sound. In the spring, they will make cat-like calls and drum on loud objects, like metal and hollow trees, to mark their territory. They can be found in Maryland backyards in winter. They sometimes will dine on suet, but young birch or maple trees are often the best attractants. Keep an eye out for horizontal sap wells in young trees!

Sources: Audubon Field Guide | Cornell All About Birds

Author’s Note

Welcome to the winter edition of the HabiChat, our quarterly backyard wildlife habitat newsletter from the Wild Acres program. Winter is usually a time of dormancy for many species. However, quite a few critters are active during this time of year! This issue includes information on one of our winter visitors—the yellow-bellied sapsucker—as well as tips on taking kids out for a winter wildlife safari. It also contains information on winter nest box maintenance tips.

In addition, the University of Maryland Extension’s Woodland Stewardship Education has several upcoming events that may be of interest to backyard enthusiasts. Registration for the spring session of The Woods in Your Backyard online course is now open. This self-paced, non-credit course runs 10 weeks from March 7-May 21, 2018. The course will help landowners convert lawn to natural areas and enhance stewardship of existing natural areas.

On Feb. 20, a one-day Farm and Forestry Succession Workshop will occur in Boonsboro. The workshop focuses on assisting landowners how to communicate objectives to their families, and plan for a smooth and secure transition of the farm or forestry lands to future generations.

If there is a particular topic that you would like to see included in a future edition, please don’t hesitate to let us know. Happy Habitats!

Kerry Wixted

Also in This Issue: 
Winter Nest Box Maintenance
Winter Wildlife Safari
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers

Want more? Check out some past winter articles as well:
Dead Trees are the Bees Knees
Habitat Tips for Winter Wildlife
Make Your Own Suet
Pruning in Winter
Water in Winter
Winter Berries for Wildlife


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Photo of fox in the snow