Tap Into Sapsuckers: The Woodpeckers with a Sweet Tooth

Meet some sweet-toothed members of the woodpecker family, and find out where to spot them.

A sapsucker belongs to the woodpecker family, but if you’re wondering why this bird drills into trees, its name is a dead giveaway. (Hint: It’s not looking for bugs!) Four kinds of sapsuckers are found across North America: yellow-bellied, red-naped, red-breasted and Williamson’s.

The sapsucker name is somewhat misleading. Instead of sucking sap, the birds sip it. The hairlike structures on the tips of their tongues act a bit like a paintbrush and help them drink the oozy sap.

What Do Sapsuckers Eat?

photo credit: Steve and Dave Maslowski
photo credit: Steve and Dave Maslowski Besides sap, these birds sometimes eat fruit. Here, a female yellow-bellied enjoys a hawthorn berry.

When sweet sap oozes from a tree, birds, insects and other animals may stop by for a taste. Humans do, too. (Think maple syrup.) But in the bird world, sapsuckers are unique for drilling and maintaining sap wells in live tree trunks. Although they also eat wild fruits, insects and nuts, the sticky stuff is a major part of their diet.

Sapsucker wells are easy to recognize. The bird uses its chisel-like beak to drill a dozen or so small holes, less than half an inch apart, in a horizontal line. Then it comes back, over and over, to lick up the sap that leaks out. When the flow starts to falter, usually after a few days, the bird makes a second row of holes just above the first. Later it makes a third row above the second, and so on. A rectangular pattern of neatly spaced holes in tree bark is a sure sign that a sapsucker is at work.

Whether it’s in permanent territory or just pausing during migration, a sapsucker typically maintains multiple sets of sap wells in different trees. It takes serious effort to make sure the tiny wells stay open for more than a few hours, and keeping other creatures at bay adds to the challenge. Some interlopers, such as hummingbirds or warblers, are small and easy to chase away. When insects are drawn to the well, the sapsucker may elect to eat them as an additional food source. But squirrels or large woodpeckers are more difficult to defend against, and if a big animal, such as a porcupine, decides to sample the goods, the sapsucker may have to go elsewhere. (Read more: The 4 Best Foods for Woodpeckers)

Where Do Sapsuckers Live?

photo credit: Dave Welling
photo credit: Dave Welling Williamson’s sapsuckers call the Western Mountains home. Males have far fewer stripes than females (above), but they both sport bright yellow bellies.

Of all sapsuckers, the yellow-bellied is most widespread. It nests in cool evergreen forests all across Canada (and very locally into eastern Alaska) and in the Northeastern states. During migration, it passes through all areas east of the Rockies. It spends the winter in the Southeastern states and into Mexico and Central America.

You’ll find the red-naped sapsucker in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. and southwestern Canada.It’s very similar to the yellow-bellied, with just a little more red on its head.

From central California to southeastern Alaska, the red-breasted sapsucker takes over. This colorful bird was once lumped in with the yellow-bellied and red-naped—they were thought to be the same species. We now know that the three are close relatives and may interbreed where their nesting ranges meet.

Finally there’s the fourth member of the group: Williamson’s sapsucker, an uncommon bird found in the Western mountains. It has typical sapsucker habits but doesn’t look like the others. The male is mostly black, while the female is brown with heavy black barring. Discovered in the 1800s, female and male Williamson’s sapsuckers look so different from each other that until they were seen sharing the same nests, they were thought to be separate species.

photo credit: Steve and Dave Maslowski
photo credit: Steve and Dave Maslowski Male Williamson’s sapsuckers (above) look so different from female Williamson’s sapsuckers that at one time, they were thought to be two different species!

How Do Sapsuckers Nest?

In summer, sapsuckers live in cool climates, such as those found in the North Woods, mountains or along the Pacific Coast. They nest from April through July, using their tree-drilling skills to dig cavities for their families. Unlike most birds, the male sapsucker, not
the female, does most of the nest hole excavating.

Other woodpeckers nest in dead holes or limbs, but sapsuckers choose live trees, especially aspen or birch. The ones they pick are often infected with a fungus that rots out the heartwood, making the soft interior easier to dig into.

photo credit: Steve and Dave Maslowski
photo credit: Steve and Dave Maslowski Red-naped sapsuckers spend their time in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S.

Sapsuckers in the Backyard

Sometimes a sapsucker visits a suet feeder and, on rare occasions, one may sample the sugar water from a hummingbird feeder. But in general, the only way to attract these birds is to have a yard with a variety of trees—particularly maple, elm, birch, aspen and pine.

If you discover a sapsucker working a few sap wells on a large tree, consider that a lucky find. It’s unlikely to hurt the tree in the long run, and you’ll have the opportunity to watch one of our oddest birds up close.

Sapsucker Damage

On rare occasions, sapsuckers focus on a small tree so much that they weaken it or even kill it. If you notice one drilling an exception number of sap wells on a favorite tree, try keeping that section of trunk or limb wrapped in heavy burlap or hardware cloth until the bird gives up and takes its tree-tapping activities elsewhere.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.