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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Illustration by Barry Kent MacKayYellow-bellied Sapsucker

by Barry Kent MacKay

A mature male yellow-bellied sapsucker. Illustration by Barry Kent MacKay

In the latter half of the 1950s there was an American TV show called the Bob Cummings Show. It starred Robert Cummings as photographer Bob Collins, and co-starred Nancy Kulp as an insufferably nerdy, pompous and flighty, khaki-clad birdwatcher by the hoity-toity name of Pamela Livingstone, who was forever seeing yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Every mention of the name of the bird was guaranteed to elicit laughter. It was frequently referenced on talk shows, always garnering a good giggle. Efforts to point out that it didn’t actually “suck” sap, but kind of licked it up with a specially adapted tongue would simply elicit more guffaws.

It all irritated my childish sensibilities. They were making fun of a most beautiful bird with, admittedly, a silly-sounding name.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker, whose scientific name is Sphyrapicus varius, is one of four species of sapsucker, a genus of birds with breeding ranges restricted to North America. The nearly identical red-naped sapsucker of western aspen forests, as well as the gorgeous red-breasted sapsucker of the Pacific slope and the mountain-loving Williamson’s sapsucker, are all found in various parts of western North America. But the yellow-bellied has the most extensive breeding range of the group, extending from eastern Alaska; east through the boreal forests of the northern prairie provinces, Ontario and the southern third of Quebec, as far as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and south into the New England states.

It is the most migratory of Canadian woodpeckers, with the entire population heading south, each fall, to the south-central U.S., with some going as far south as the southern end of Panama. But they return early, each spring. Like the sudden appearance of maple syrup pails or budding pussy willows, or the first caroling of robins or trilling of chorus-frogs, the yellow-breasted sapsucker’s appearance signals an end to winter.

Spring, summer, and fall they are one of the most common woodpeckers of the central and northern forests of Ontario. Their bold colouring features a distinctive black, white and red head pattern, a pale yellow breast, mottled black and white back, and a fairly distinctive white bar through the wing, often quite conspicuous when the bird is in flight.

Immature birds, seen in late summer and in the autumn, are highly variable, often being quite mottled and flecked with light brown about the head and breast, but with distinct traces of the adult pattern showing through.

Sapsuckers drill rows of holes in tree trunks, where sap can flow, or pool in the bottom of the hole. The birds will return again and again to thrust their bushy-tipped tongues into the sweet substance, or to eat ants and other insects attracted to it. Butterflies, hummingbirds, and orioles have been known to avail themselves of the sweet feast. During the nesting season, half of the sapsuckers’ diet contains insects, even some caught in active aerial pursuit, or by searching for them on the ground, but otherwise sap appears to be the main component of their diet. Berries are also consumed, and sometimes delicate spring buds.

Not everyone appreciates sapsuckers. They can produce so many rows of sap-exuding holes, called wells, that the tree dies. It is relatively rare for this to happen; a stroll through any coniferous or mixed-coniferous forest in Ontario will show that numerous trees—both conifers and deciduous, with the tell-tale rows of sapsucker holes on their trunks and branches—are still alive and generally well.

But some do die and in the forest this is not an issue; increasingly ecologists realize that the death of trees is a part of the dynamic nature of woodland habitat, amplifying the overall biodiversity of the forest by creating openings and allowing undergrowth and new trees to emerge. Forest fires and some insect infestations have formed this function throughout time, but so do some herbivorous animals, tree-nesting colonial birds, and even sapsuckers.

Problems arise from the fact that orchard or garden trees may also appeal to a sapsucker, and while most are not seriously damaged, if riddled with enough rows of sap-bleeding holes, an otherwise healthy young tree can die. If a cherished tree seems under excessive attack, wrapping it with hardware cloth or chicken wire, and festooning the branches with pie plates or covering the crown with bird-proof netting, may be all that can save it.

Sapsuckers make their own nest holes, typically in trees that are healthy on the outside, but with rotting heartwood. The same nest may be used for several consecutive years. Usually about five eggs are laid, and both sexes share in their incubation, which lasts about 12 or 13 days. Mom and Dad share in feeding, with the male doing most of the nest cleaning. Babies exit the nest in just less than a month from hatching, remaining under parental care for about two more weeks.

Noisy, active, colourful and bold, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is one of the most noticeable of our forest residents. If only it had a less silly name.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 49, Spring 2005. Copyright Barry Kent MacKay.



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