This handsome woodpecker unintentionally feeds the multitudes, providing an energy drink for insects, bats, chipmunks and 35 other species of birds.
Here’s a quick quiz: What bird is the only species mentioned on “The Honeymooners,” a popular TV sitcom from the mid-1950s? And which bird is mentioned (but not in the way most of us remember) in an insult by nutty cartoon character Yosemite Sam?
Give yourself points if you answered “Yellow-bellied sapsucker” to both questions. “The Honeymooners” ’ Art Carney and Jackie Gleason discussed this woodpecker while sitting on a park bench. And not to split hairs, but even though most of us seem to remember Yosemite Sam snarling, “You yellow-bellied sapsucker!” his exact insult referred to a “lily-livered” sapsucker. But close enough.
People love to say this bird’s name for the way it trips off the tongue, and little kids dissolve into helpless giggles when they hear it.
Truth to tell, this is an aptly named bird due to its lemon-colored breast and the fact that much of its diet is made up of tree sap.
Unlike most other woodpeckers, it doesn’t chisel into tree bark in search of insect larvae or ants. No, the sapsucker might be called the hummingbird of the woodpecker world since it’s after a sweeter treat, the tree sap flowing under the bark. Sapsuckers don’t really suck tree sap, but instead they lap it up or, really, sip the tree nectar with their brushlike tongue. (A reader has suggested we call this bird the yellow-bellied sapsipper for this reason.)
They’re migratory birds and appear early in the spring, right at the time that sap is surging within trees.
These woodpeckers excavate groups of shallow holes, called sap wells, in a tree’s outer layer, then wait for sap to drip into the hole. Always on the lookout for the sweetest sap around, sapsuckers drill a few small holes horizontally on a trunk or branch to sample the sap. If it’s good and sweet, they begin chipping out vertical rows, and visit these often during the day to slurp up the sweet stuff. (About half of their diet is made up of sap and the rest is insects, berries and fruit.) Sapsuckers make a favorite treat by collecting a mouthful of ants, dipping them into sap, then swallowing the sweet and squirmy ball.
Most of this activity occurs in spring and early summer, when tree sap pressure is at its highest, which brings up a potential negative impact of the yellow-bellied sapsucker’s tree drilling.
Bad for trees?
We’ve probably all seen woody plants, including birches, maples, hemlocks, apple, mulberry and dozens of other species, with these telltale quarter-inch holes around the trunk. And many of us wonder whether this harms the tree. In most cases the answer is no: If there aren’t too many wells, the tree can recover completely. But if birds drill so many holes that the tree or branch becomes girdled, impairing its ability to move water and nutrients, there can be permanent damage. There’s also the potential for harmful insects or bacteria to enter through the holes, causing secondary damage.
Some researchers claim that diseased trees produce a sweeter sap, and that a great deal of sapsucker damage may indicate that a tree was already stressed in some way. Healthy trees are best able to deal with threats from sapsuckers and the many other creatures that feast on them.
Freeloaders at the wells
Sapsuckers don’t willingly share their tree nectar, and will chase off any and all intruders (and consume any insects trapped in the sticky stuff). But many other wild creatures avail themselves of the sweet syrup flow while sapsuckers are busy elsewhere, including butterflies, other flying insects, squirrels and chipmunks, bats, porcupines, many species of warblers, nuthatches, other woodpeckers and Baltimore orioles.
And ruby-throated hummingbirds, many people’s favorite summertime bird, might never have made it this far north without the assistance of sapsuckers. The tiny nectar eaters arrive at our latitude in early May, long before flowers are in bloom. They rely on sapsucker wells to provide sap — very like flower nectar — and the insects it attracts to tide them over for several weeks, until flowers appear. Without such a boost, some say, ruby-throats wouldn’t have moved farther north than Missouri.
How might you locate a sapsucker to observe? Try finding a tree with active wells, then wait until the bird returns on one of its many daily feeding trips. In the springtime, listen for this woodpecker’s squeaky, catlike call (www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-bellied_sapsucker/sounds) as a clue to its whereabouts. And if you know someone who collects their own maple syrup, it’s good to keep in mind that sapsuckers are pretty much in the same business.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at val firstname.lastname@example.org.