James B. Hanson, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) are known to feed on the sap of over 275 species of trees, both deciduous and coniferous. By boring holes into the trunk of a tree, these woodpeckers are able to tap into the tree’s sap. These holes have two distinct patterns - small round holes formed in horizontal rows, or larger square holes formed in vertical rows. Sugar content in sap varies from tree species to tree species, but research has also shown that injured and diseased trees have sweeter sap than healthy trees. Trees girdled by foresters have shown heavy sapsucker activity just above the cut area, indicating that perhaps sapsuckers are attracted to trees with underlying health problems.

While this may be unfortunate for the tree, it is a necessary food source for the sapsucker and many other birds, mammals and insects. Yellow-rumped Warblers (and eight other warbler species), Cedar Waxwings, chickadees, hummingbirds, red squirrels, flying squirrels, butterflies, moths and many other insects all take advantage of the sapsucker's offerings. In return, the sapsucker takes its payment by consuming some of the insects attracted to the sap. Since hummingbirds often migrate back to their breeding grounds before flowers are in bloom, the sap from sapsucker drill holes becomes an important food source for them.

Hummingbirds have been observed following sapsuckers through the forest and have even been seen driving sapsuckers from the sap holes! In this interconnected world of ours, it makes sense that many creatures frequent the very successful dining establishments of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Cindi Kobak

[Audubon’s Climate Report lists the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as Climate Threatened.]