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Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Have Varied Diet

4-6-16 yellow-bellied sapsucker mael 471 Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are just starting to arrive on their northern breeding grounds.  As you might assume from their name, these birds feed on the sap of trees.  Their horizontal lines of drilled holes are a familiar sight, especially in trees such as paper birch, yellow birch, sugar maple, red maple and hickory, all of which have a high concentration of sugar in their sap.

In addition to sap, yellow-bellied sapsuckers also eats insects (primarily ants), and spiders, probing underneath bark to find them.  They’ve even been observed “hawking”– taking off from a branch and scooping up insects in the air.

Lesser known is the fact that sapsuckers also consume vegetation, including the inner bark and cambium layers of trees, the buds of trembling aspen, and a variety of fruits and seeds. The recent cold snap had the pictured male yellow-bellied sapsucker scarfing down crab apples before the sun set. (The next NC post will be on 4/11/15.)

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24 responses

  1. Sue

    Hi Mary: I had a very cold looking sapsucker working the peanuts in a feeder. Sue Wetmore Sent from my iPod

    >

    April 6, 2016 at 7:47 am

  2. Penny

    Doesn’t the sapsucker’s drilling also benefit the hummingbirds who should arrive in about 3 weeks?

    April 6, 2016 at 8:40 am

    • Yes, the theory is that hummers time their migration to closely follow/coincide with sapsuckers’ for this very reason!

      April 6, 2016 at 9:42 am

  3. Mary, I had heard that the sap that flows out of the drilled holes and adheres to the bark serves as a kind of sticky “flypaper” that traps insects, which the sapsuckers and hummingbirds can then eat. Do you know if this is true?

    April 6, 2016 at 9:48 am

    • Wendy, I’ve seen all kinds of insects that are attracted to the sap — the holes are actually drilled at a slight slant, so that the sap doesn’t run out too much, but just having the hole there does the trick…flies, yellowjackets, butterflies — you name it!

      April 6, 2016 at 10:28 am

      • Thanks for the clarification…it seems the holes may serve a dual purpose for the sapsuckers, though not in the way that I thought.

        April 6, 2016 at 10:39 am

  4. Cecilia Marchetti

    Ever since I was introduced to your blog several years, it has become an essential part of my life. Some people can’t function without their first cup,of coffee. I start every day by reading your entry. What I learn enhances my walks in the woods, and adds so much to what I share with young friends and family members. I finally decided earlier this week to contribute. Thank you for enriching my life immeasurably.

    April 6, 2016 at 10:29 am

    • Cecilia,
      Thank you so much for your very kind words, and for letting me know that my blog really does make a difference in your life. Nothing means more to me than to have the work I do reaffirmed. It is the highest compliment. Thank you for your donation and for your readership!

      April 6, 2016 at 11:29 am

  5. Betsy Janeway

    Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are my favorite woodpecker because of the delightfully erratic rhythm of their drumming, unlike all their cousins. They start out fast, slow down, and sort of lose momentum entirely at the end. Listen, listen!
    Betsy Janeway

    April 6, 2016 at 10:35 am

  6. Yes, we had one on our crab apple tree last week, dining amicably with a flock of cedar waxwings.

    April 6, 2016 at 11:36 am

  7. Sylvie Desautels

    Hi Mary, Are sapsuckers responsible for holes in apple and crab apple trees? Do you know if this harms the trees and if so what there is to do to help the trees?

    Thanks…keep up the great work Sylvie​

    On Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 7:13 AM, Naturally Curious with Mary Holland wrote:

    > Mary Holland posted: ” Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are just starting to > arrive on their northern breeding grounds. As you might assume from their > name, these birds feed on the sap of trees. Their horizontal lines of > drilled holes are a familiar sight, especially in trees such ” >

    April 6, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    • Hi Sylvie,
      Yes, sapsuckers love apple tree sap! While holes made by the sapsucker can provide points of entry for wood-decaying fungi and bacteria, they rarely cause serious damage to the tree. The physical damage may weaken trees or shrubs, making them more susceptible to secondary diseases and insects. If you’re concerned, you can wrap hardware cloth or burlap over the area, and remove it at the end of the summer.

      April 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm

  8. Awesome photo, Mary! That’s quite the pose!

    April 6, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    • Thanks so much, Josh – I thought so, too!

      April 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm

  9. Helen Downing

    UrHi Mary,

    April 6, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    • Helen Downing

      Hi Mary, I did a little tap dance on my iPad and urhi posted! Sorry for the error. I wanted to ask the same question as Sylvie. Are trees damaged by the YTSS’s ?

      April 6, 2016 at 1:00 pm

      • Hi Helen,
        Here’s what I wrote Sylvie. Yes, sapsuckers love apple tree sap! While holes made by the sapsucker can provide points of entry for wood-decaying fungi and bacteria, they rarely cause serious damage to the tree. The physical damage may weaken trees or shrubs, making them more susceptible to secondary diseases and insects. If you’re concerned, you can wrap hardware cloth or burlap over the area, and remove it at the end of the summer.

        April 9, 2016 at 1:29 pm

  10. Dudley Carlson

    Great photo! I love these juicy tidbits as much as the Sapsucker loves ants and crabapples. Thanks for keeping our curiosity well stimulated and satisfied!

    April 6, 2016 at 2:45 pm

  11. Nice shot, Mary. Enjoy your few days respite.

    April 6, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    • Thanks, Eliza. Back from visiting grandson – got a cold from him, but it was worth it! 🙂

      April 9, 2016 at 1:16 pm

      • Always worth the price! 🙂

        April 9, 2016 at 8:15 pm

  12. Chris Child

    VERY nice shot!!!

    April 6, 2016 at 6:51 pm

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