Quoddy Nature Notes – Sapsuckers

Sapsucker Holes

Sapsucker marks on an apple tree.



Sapsuckers are members of the Woodpecker family Picidae.  Apparently woodpeckers are the only critters that use a ‘musical’ instrument in place of a characteristic call to attract a mate or define their territory.  This ‘musical’ instrument can be anything from an old dead branch to a piece of tin to a house that they drum on, but their rendition is pretty unique to each genus, and sometimes to the species level.  That’s sort of interesting, but if I had been in charge of evolving woodpeckers, I would have figured out a system with a little more melody.

All woodpeckers have stiff tails that are used for support as they whack on trees or anything else with their rugged beaks.  There are four species of sapsuckers in North America and they are all in the genus Sphyrapicus, but we only have the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, S. varius, here in the Quoddy region.  Our sapsucker looks a little like our resident woodpeckers, but its size is midway between the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers.  The sapsucker usually migrates south to the gulf states and Mexico this time of year, so any confusion of identifying with a resident woodpecker is lessened.

A close check of the anatomy of the sapsucker reveals its major difference from a woodpecker.  Normally a woodpecker has a long tongue with barbs on the end so that it can easily spear and retrieve a grub or other insect from the furthest end of a hole it has pecked in a tree.  A sapsuckers has a shorter tongue with bristles on it that is more useful to daub up some fluid. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the sapsucking habit of the sapsucker was firmly established.  Frank Bolles published his experiments and observations in the July, 1891 issue of “The Auk”.  Up until that time ornithologists generally believed that the sapsuckers pecked holes in trees to attract insects and then the sapsuckers only ate the insects.  Bolles’ experiments showed that sapsuckers did eat some of the insects, but the birds were primarily interested in the sap for their source of nutrients.  Bolles also experimented with little cups of sugar water which the sapsuckers readily visited, and noted that when a little brandy was added, the reaction of birds was surprisingly like humans, with entertaining and foolish behavior.

Forbush (1913) noted that Yellow-bellied sapsuckers also ate various hairy caterpillars and their cocoons.  This was one of the few instances in my research where a writer implied that sapsuckers may have some benefit to people.  Sapsuckers peck holes in over 250 species of trees and vines; everything from the majestic white pine to poison ivy.  Around here their favorites seem to be apple, oak, hemlock, and birch. The work of these birds is typically pretty neat, with a row or more of delicate, evenly spaced holes that just go through the bark and abruptly stop at the wood.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers damage some trees by girdling and making access holes for insects and fungi, and help to initiate internal rot.  I’m sure if the trees and vines had their druthers there would be no sapsuckers.  Many outdoor writers pen apologies for the apparent conflict of nature versus nature, and bird lovers versus tree huggers, but that’s what nature is all about, and sapsuckers are an integral part of nature.  The sap that these birds obtain from the punctured tree is also used by hummingbirds, sparrows, robins, squirrels, click beetles, moths, ants and even the early spring Mourning Cloak butterfly.

So next May, in a quiet morning, listen for woodpeckers drumming.  If you hear the characteristic pattern of a Yellow-bellied sapsucker, “ TAPTAPTAPTAP !….TapTap….tap tap”,  don’t moan in worry about  the possibility of your apple tree bleeding a little.  Rejoice that a neat little bird has survived our cars, cats, LNG flares and other hazards that we have thrown in his path and made it back to the Quoddy region.