Return of Bird of the Week: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


Another family of woodpeckers that aren’t called “woodpeckers.” Instead they are called, somewhat inaccurately, “sapsuckers.” There are four species in the sapsucker genus, Sphyrapicus, and WC has photographs of three of them. The first is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, High Island, Texas

The easternmost of the Sapsuckers, the species is familiar in the eastern and central United States, but its breeding range extends into Interior Alaska. The late Alaska pioneer ornithologist, Dr. Brina Kessell reported them as “uncommon” as recently as the early 1960s, and noted the number of sap wells on older cottonwoods and aspens, but they are rare in the Interior today. Today WC has seen them as far west as Yakutat, hawking bugs over the Situk River.

The yellow wash across the belly can be faint, but the combination of red cap, solid black upper chest and black molar stripe are pretty unmistakeable.

Sapsuckers, like Northern Flickers, are a keystone species. Not only because they create nest cavities used by other species. The “wells” ā€“ holes in the bark drilled to cause tree sap to ooze out as food ā€“ are also used by species ranging from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to Chickadees. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sometimes build their nests near sapsucker well trees. In addition to tree sap, this species eats leaf buds, hawks insects and drills trees for bugs and larva. As many as 1,000 different woody tree and shrub species have been documented with sapsucker wells.

There are plenty of mysteries about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. One of them is how it survives on tree sap alone for some periods of each year. Sugar water, and fairly dilute sugar water at that, seems thin rations. The series of sap wells in a tree represents a significant expenditure of time and energy. How does a bird pick a tree?

The species is threatened or near-threatened in its winter range across the southeastern United States. The population declines are believed to be related to the clearing of land in the area. In that winter range, the species is not well studied.

For more bird photographs, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

One thought on “Return of Bird of the Week: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

  1. I like the sharp image of the bird contrasted with the very soft leaves in the foreground. Those two leaves frame the sapsucker’s face perfectly and keep drawing my eye to him.

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