Walking around your yard or
perhaps in a park or in the woods, you may have noticed
unusual vertical, horizontal or diagonal
patterns of holes in the bark of a tree. In some cases, you may see a very
odd pattern of square or rectangular patches of variable sizes, with rounded
corners carved out of the tree bark, in almost perfect vertical order, as if
someone had set a template down and carefully carved out the holes in the
bark. These are the feeding wells of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a species
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is one of 22 woodpeckers
found in North America, eight of which are found in the Mid-Atlantic states.
It is quiet and secretive and is not often noticed. It will allow humans to
approach closely, and hang silent and almost motionless, as if curious as to
what you are doing. Even then, it may only quietly sidle around the tree,
much like a squirrel, before it flies off.
Its scientific name is Sphyrapicus (meaning “hammer
woodpecker”) varius (meaning “variegated”). It is different from its cousins
in many ways, especially its feeding habits. A friend in northern Virginia
called it “that funny woodpecker,” not knowing what it was. Some of its
common names are yellow-bellied woodpecker, red-throated sapsucker, and
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker
measuring 71⁄4 to 81⁄2 inches in length. Its contrasting patterns of black,
white and red are visually striking. Its folded wings have long white
stripes and spots; its back is mottled brownish-black and white, and its
face is striped with black and white. The male has a bright red throat
patch, the female’s is white. The male has a bright red forehead and crown.
The tail is black with white inner feathers barred and spotted with white.
The undersides are dull or dirty white with a wash of yellow and dark
grayish v-shaped markings on the flanks.
This bird flies with the bounding flight style similar to
other woodpeckers, but it doesn’t drop as much between bounds and displays
more of a floating motion. It tends to hang back more on the side of a tree
rather than hugging it like other woodpeckers. When it takes off it jumps
away from the tree and drops down to gain speed. While usually silent, the
bird will occasionally emit a cat-like call best described as “mee-yah” or
“wee-yah,” resembling the first notes of the call of the red-shouldered
hawk, or a blue jay’s imitation of such a call.
In summer it is mainly a bird of the northern forests or
woodlots near water. However, it can be found in the deciduous forests and
coastal thickets of the Mid-Atlantic. A subspecies, the Appalachian
yellow-bellied sapsucker, occupies the mountains of Virginia and North
The yellow-bellied is a bird you might see all winter in
the Mid-Atlantic in small numbers, although among woodpeckers it is the
species that migrates farthest south. November and early December are the
months it is most apt to be seen, but come February and March, males will
begin again to appear. Their appearance is sudden since they migrate mostly
at night. Their arrival seems to coincide with the beginning of sap flow in
trees. The females follow the males.
Like most woodpeckers, male yellow-bellied sapsuckers
drum on anything that resonates, such as hollow trees or branches, wooden
boards, rain gutters, tin roofs. In part, they do so to attract a mate; but
also to alert other males of ownership of the territory. During courtship
they get a little noisier, flying playfully at each other, scrambling and
sliding down and around the tree trunks, flying from branch to branch with
flashing wings and flaring tails, uttering a “wika-wika” call.
The sapsucker nests in cavities 15 to 60 feet up,
hollowing out a gourd-shaped cavity in dead or dying trees and often in
birch and usually along rivers or in swamps; and it may return to the same
cavity year after year. About four to seven eggs are laid in a bed of wood
chips and feathers, and once hatched the young stick to the nest cavity
As its name implies, the sapsucker’s main food source is
tree sap, although insects, nuts, seeds, and wild berries are also in its
diet. Trees of all types are chosen, especially maples, sweet gum, fruit
trees, even holly, photinia, and pines. The bird develops “feeding wells” in
a number of places and will travel around to them during the day. Its tongue
is more brush-like than that of other woodpeckers, enabling the
yellow-bellied sapsucker to sweep up tree sap more efficiently. Its feeding
habits also benefit other animals, especially in spring when food is scarce.
Chickadees, yellow-rumped warblers, and other woodpeckers come to the
sapsucker’s wells to feed on the sap.