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Photo Credit: Marlene Cashen & Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sphyrapicus varius
OTHER NAMES: Yellow-bellied sap-lapper, red-throated sapsucker, sap-sipper, yellow-bellied woodpecker.
DESCRIPTION: The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a medium size black and white colored woodpecker. It is easily identified by a diagnostic narrow longitudinal wing stripe and finely mottled back. This woodpecker is 7 to 9 inches in length with a wing span reaching up to 16 inches. Weight can vary with time of year but generally averages 1 ½ ounces.
A yellowish color adorns the belly (one feature that derives this woodpecker its name) chest and back areas. The face of the yellow bellied sapsucker has two white horizontal white stripes: one originating at the eye and the other at the bill. The crown or crest is red with black bordering. The male has a red colored chin and throat but only white in the female. Both sexes have a black bib across the upper part of breast. The rump in both sexes is white. The wings have white and black barring. The tail is black with white bars across central tail feathers. The eyes, feet and bill are blackish in color. Juveniles are similar in size but head and body marking are mostly a brownish color instead of black.
DISTRIBUTION: The yellow-bellied sapsucker is completely migratory. It ranges throughout mid and eastern North America and migrates southward as far as Panama. Summer breeding grounds are northward from North Carolina to Canada and westward into Alaska.
HABITAT: Open forests and orchards are important winter habitats. Breeds mostly in young forest stands in nest cavities constructed in snag trees and dead branches. In the north, the yellow-bellied sapsucker shows a strong preference to nest in live aspens which have soft heart wood.
FEEDING HABITS: The yellow-bellied sapsucker has adapted a specialized feeding habit. This woodpecker makes with its bill a series of small round and square holes (1/4 inch diameter) in horizontal rows around live trees (trunks and branches), shrubs, and vines creating sap wells from which plant sap flows and collects. The sapsucker frequents these sap wells on a regular basis to feed on the energy rich sap and insects entrapped in the sticky residue. The sapsucker’s tongue shape and design allows this woodpecker to drink the liquid sap by simply lapping it right out of the hole. You can bet on the yellow-bellied to freshen up old holes and create a new one while at its dinner table. New holes are normally made above or below existing holes on favored trees and other plant species. Its spear-shaped tongue is equipped along the edges with tiny rear-pointing barbs that help the woodpecker grab and hold onto captured prey such as small insects.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The yellow-bellied sapsucker announces its presence by a noted soft cat like “me-ah” sound. Its drumming or pecking is also a distinctive irregular tapping sound (rat-a-tat-tat) and communicates with others of its kind by a slow tapping sound.
The sapsucker’s unique adaptive feeding habit of creating small resin wells in live plant species provides a rich carbohydrate food source for other bird species and small mammals.
Other adaptive anatomical features help the woodpecker to meet its life requirements. One is its unique foot design, common to all woodpeckers, having two toes pointing forward and two facing backwards. Another is its central tail feathers are stiff and tapered near the ends. These two features together help the woodpecker to articulate up, down and around tree trunks and branches when in search of food. They also provide good stability and balance (tripod support) when pecking holes in trees.
Beginning in April, both sexes select a nest site but the male takes the lead in this matter. The yellow-bellied sapsucker constructs a nesting cavity in snag trees, dead branches and live aspens in its northern range. The female lays four or five white eggs once the nest site is selected. Young hatch in 12 to 14 days once incubation has begun. Helpless at birth, the parents feed the young a mixture of sap and insects. Under the parents tireless care the young are ready to leave the safety of the nest cavity within four weeks to explore their new environment.
Terres, J. T, 1980, The Audubon Society, Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Page 1018 Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, USA
Robbins, Chandler S., Bruun, Bretel and Zim, Herbert S., 1966, A Guide To Field Identification, Birds of North America, Golden Press, New York, Pages 184-185.
AUTHOR: Rick Claybrook, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, January 2008