January 2023 Birds Need Plants Photo Contest

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

Birds have evolved into such unique diversity in every ecological niche. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are the only woodpeckers that drill shallow holes through the cambium layer or inner bark of trees, tapping the plant tissues (xylem and phloem), which conduct water, nutrients, and sap that oozes out of the holes.  They lick up the sap with their rough tongues.  The sap attracts insects, like ants, which the Sapsuckers also eat, and, most importantly, to feed to their nestlings, they dip ants into the sap (adding nutrition or just tasty?— “helps the medicine go down?”). Daily, they make rounds to check and freshen their holes, to keep the sap flowing, as well as defend their established territory. When viewing and identifying a possible Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker, look for its white wing bar on black wing visible both while sitting or flying, and a very pale, yellow-colored breast and two back stripes. Find 2 white head stripes above and below the eye’s black stripe. Sapsuckers have a prominent black bib covering their chest, with a bright red throat in males but a white throat in females.  Both sexes have red crowns.

All of our other Florida woodpeckers breed and remain in Florida year-round. Some Northern-breeding woodpeckers migrate into Florida (e.g., Hairy Woodpeckers), where we also have resident Hairy Woodpeckers. However, during the summer, our Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breed in eastern Alaska, Canada, and the northeastern US states. They prefer young forests of aspen, birch, and maple, as well as red spruce and balsam fir.  Anticipating that sap, their primary food source, will not flow by October, they migrate south to the southern states, Mexico, Central America, Cuba, and the Caribbean Islands for the winter. There they again feed on sap but from young hickory, oak, and pine trees.  They leave in April to return North to set up territories for breeding once more. Interestingly, paleontologists identified a 3,500-year-old right humerus bone excavated in Vero Beach as a Sphyrapicus, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! 1 Long before most of our ancestors thought about coming to Florida for the winter, this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been coming for millennia for sunshine and sap!

1Weigel, R. D. (1962). Fossil vertebrates of Vero, Florida. Florida Geological Survey, Special Publ. 10.

2Walters, Eric L., Edward H. Miller, and Peter E. Lowther (2020). Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.  https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.yebsap.01

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