The second member of the Picidae family featured in ‘A Bestiary’ is the showy and industrious Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius. These brightly patterned woodpeckers are frequent visitors to the gardens here at Flower Hill Farm and are somewhat steward-like to a few of our apples, crabapples and hawthorns.
The trees the sapsuckers adopt might be considered similar to my neighbors dairy cows and these woodpeckers are well equipped to ‘milk’ their chosen stands.
Our gardens stretch over a hillside bordering a second and third growth forest edge offering a favored habitat for these and other woodpeckers.
I do not often see the mid-sized woodpecker’s brilliant red crest standing at attention as in this male. Perhaps I startled him, as he did fly higher in the apple tree a few seconds after posing for this photo. I suppose it was an aggressive act towards me, but he seemed to adjust quickly to my presence and went about what woodpeckers do best, searching for insects beneath crusty bark.
Along with his crest, his red throat and large patch of white on the wings are telltale signs in identifying the male Yellow-bellied Woodpecker. Actually, the long, brushstroke-like white markings on the wings are the easiest way to determine this species from other woodpeckers.
It is easy to see where the rather unflattering name ‘Yellow-bellied’ comes from, but not all of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers I have encountered here in the gardens and forest have this cadmium yellow breast and belly.
I cannot say if the hawthorn appreciates the tattoo-like marks Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers create, but I have not noted any great distress in the tree as yet. I will have to keep a close watch on this to be sure the birds do not damage the entire girth of the tree.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill two kinds of wells; one more shallow and square-like, while the other is deeper and circular. The sapsuckers are set apart from other woodpeckers in that they have a brush-tipped tongue allowing them to more easily keep their shallow wells open and aids in gathering insects.
The lace-like rectangular markings they are creating on the hawthorn do not seem to be for wells but perhaps the bark is removed to uncover insects. It appears to me they are not being very respectful stewards of this lovely flowering and important fruit producing tree. I imagine the holes in the bark are making the hawthorn more vulnerable to disease but I do not mind the design. Then again, it may be the case that the hawthorn is harboring a disease which attracts the woodpeckers to begin with.
The hawthorn sap wells are shared with a stout young female who may eventually sport a red crest and her throat will become more white.
A pair of Yelow-bellied Sapsuckers will come together season after season but not necessarily for life. The female has an easier time of rearing young due to the great partnership the male offers. It is the male who will chisel out nearly a foot deep nest cavity and he will equally assist in every stage of raising their offspring. They do seem to part ways in the winter, however, females flying further south to Central America, while the male will settle for the southern United States. It is widely believed that this allows the males to return to their breeding grounds sooner, for there is much competition between them.
I have often witnessed two or more birds giving chase around trunks of trees while vocalizing chirps and thought it to be competitive, but it may also be part of a courtship dance as many of the gestures used in wooing a female are also used in aggressive acts between two males.
An immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker visiting wells in the crabapple orchard. The white band on the wing is becoming evident. Note the squarish and circular holes mostly placed in neat lines.
A female lifts her head revealing her white throat. It appears that many females may not choose to don a red cap but this female wears a bright fire engine red one.
There seem to be constant comings and goings between the chosen apples, crabapples and hawthorns. One day I was standing up from supporting a favored plant, when a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nearly hit me head on.
A collision with this pointed bill would have proved painful and quite a puncture hole might have ended up in my head which would not offer any sap to the woodpeckers liking.
I do find these avian beasts quite delightful in our little shared habitat.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also play an important role in the avian community. Their wells are sometimes guarded and yet they seem to allow other birds to share in their nourishing digs.
Hummingbirds are regular visitors to the sapsucker’s wells. The sap is an especially helpful addition to their diet when there may not be as many flowers in bloom.
A few years ago I observed a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker patiently waiting, while a female Ruby-throated hummingbird sipped from her many wells.
The sapsucker returned to her food supply immediately once the usurper had flown off and seemed to utter some indignant cheeps.
Other birds such as this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) and even bats will take advantage of the clever carvings, in search of insects and a bit of nutritious sap too.
Trees have a natural self-defense code and methods for sealing injuries but the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a unique way of keeping their wells running and some believe that the truth may be hidden within their spittle.
Over the years I have seen Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drilling and tending wells on a variety of trees. I have not lost one of these trees due to their incessant carvings and feel their presence in the gardens and forest are most beneficial.
© 2013, Carol Duke. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us