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Sapsuckers & Hummingbirds

4-10-17 sapsucker and hummer 014

The Morse Code tapping of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers has just started reverberating in northern New England woodlands once again – a sure sign of spring. There is an interesting relationship between sapsuckers and hummingbirds, with hummingbirds reaping most of the benefits.   It is thought that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird may time its migration north to coincide with that of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some areas. In northern New England, hummingbirds arrive on their breeding grounds about a month after sapsuckers, insuring that sapsucker-drilled sap wells will be waiting for them. The reason this is important is that these wells are an important source of nutrients (both sap and insects attracted to it) for hummingbirds as well as sapsuckers.  In addition, and not surprisingly, hummingbirds often place their nest near sap wells. This affinity for sap continues well past the nesting season – – hummingbirds have been observed following sapsuckers throughout summer days. (Photo:  male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker & male Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

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10 responses

  1. Thanks for this. I know I have seen Hummers when the ground was mostly snow-covered and only the earliest of flowers (pulmonaria) were out. Also had great fun watching a Hummer “feed” on the red crest of a Piliated once. Enjoy this sudden rush of spring.

    April 10, 2017 at 7:35 am

    • What a fantastic sight, seeing the hummer attracted to the pileated crest! You were certainly in the right place at the right time! Thanks, John.

      April 10, 2017 at 9:48 am

  2. Elizabeth Kilmarx

    Just pulled taps from my maples this weekend. Most have stopped flowing, but a few holes had some sap still. Am wondering if anyone has seen hummers drinking from tap holes at the end of sugaring season?

    April 10, 2017 at 11:37 am

    • What a great question! I have no idea if that’s been observed but it would make sense if hummingbirds were back by the time sugaring ended.

      April 10, 2017 at 8:27 pm

  3. Noreen

    How do we identify the sap wells, and what trees are they on?

    April 10, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    • The sap wells are about 1/4″ in diameter, and are usually drilled in horizontal lines. They are on a variety of tree species, most with high sugar concentrations in their sap, such as paper birch, yellow birch, sugar maple, red maple, and hickory.

      April 10, 2017 at 8:29 pm

  4. Funnily enough, I only just today spotted a noisy pair on my walk! They seemed to be checking out cavities in trees for nesting.

    April 10, 2017 at 8:10 pm

  5. Gillian Henry

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog Mary – what a pleasure it is to read. We live in northwest Wisconsin, quite a way from New England, but much of what you say pertinent to us. I learned about sapsuckers when we first tried to tap our maple trees and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since. One of our trees is a sapsucker magnet – it’s covered in old, healed sapwells and the sapsucker returns each year to make new ones (I watched him digging one yesterday in fact). The trunk of this particular tree is black from the fungus that grows on all of the sugar that streams down the bark. I’ve never seen a hummingbird drink from the sapwells, but I have seen yellow-rumped warblers do it, also ruby-crowned kinglets and once, a purple finch (observations made while waiting patiently, trying to photograph the sapsucker!). This year, while collecting maple sap at the end of March, I found a comma butterfly, presumably recently emerged from hibernation, feeding on the sap that was streaming from a natural break in the bark. One question – do you know why the sapsucker drills a horizontal row of holes in the maple but vertical rows in other trees, such as birch?

    April 13, 2017 at 11:52 am

    • Hi Gillian,
      I loved hearing about what you had seen at sapsucker wells! Amazing! I’m afraid I can’t answer your question — in fact, I’ve never seen anything but horizontal rows of wells, including in birch trees. I will pay closer attention and will get back to you if I find any information on this phenomenon. What a magnet they are for other creatures. Many thanks for sharing your observations.

      April 19, 2017 at 3:21 pm

      • Gillian Henry

        Thanks for answering my question Mary. Perhaps I am mistaken about the vertical sapwells. I’ve only observed horizontal ones myself (always in maples) but I’m sure I’ve read about vertical ones and thought it strange (hence my question). Of course, I can no longer find the original source(s) so it’s possible that they were not reliable. Meanwhile, I can now add the black-capped chickadee to the list of species that I’ve seen drinking from sapwells.

        April 22, 2017 at 5:05 pm

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