Hi, friends – Cornelius here! I’ve been watching out the window of the Visitor Center from my tank, and it’s clear that spring is just around the corner. The temperatures are beginning to rise, as is the sap in the trees. All that sap moving around means that it is a good time to highlight my friend, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!
In case you didn’t know, a sapsucker is actually a woodpecker! It uses its strong woodpecker beak to drill lines of holes in tree bark. As sap moves through the tree’s inner bark it pools in the openings created by the woodpecker’s drilling. Then the bird can simply lap it up using the brush-like structure on the end of its tongue. Sometimes bugs are attracted to the sap’s sugars and they end up caught in the wells too, which provides for a nice high-protein snack. Trees like maples and birches are favorites, but sapsuckers have been seen using over 1,000 different types of woody plants for feeding!
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is one of six woodpecker species that live in the park, but it is special because it migrates, unlike the other woodpeckers that tend to stay in one region year-round. It spends winters in the Mid-Atlantic south into Central America, while it breeds in the northern United States and Canada. Here in the park, we see lots of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the winter. With the leaves off the trees it becomes easier to spot both their feeding holes and the birds themselves. A quick walk down either the Millrace Trail or Beech Trail will show lots of feeding locations!
The easiest way to tell if a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is in your neighborhood is to look for signs of feeding – those lines of sap wells are a clear sign! Otherwise, look for a woodpecker that is roughly robin-sized. They are overall black and white, with messy white barring on their backs, big white patches on their wings, and pale to bright yellow bellies. Both males and females have bright red crowns, but only the males have red throats as well.
Want to encourage sapsuckers to visit your yard? Maintain woodpecker-favorite trees like maples, birch, and hickory. You can also plant fruit trees – in addition to the sap, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers love a good apple or serviceberry treat!