Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus varius

yellow-bellied-sapsucker-male.jpg
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Male.

Ed Schneider/Flickr/Used With Permission

The most widespread sapsucker in North America, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is an important part of the ecosystem and many other species rely on the holes it drills for their own foraging, including many other birds, hummingbirds, bats, and porcupines. As a member of the Picidae bird family, the sapsucker is easily characterized as a woodpecker, but it has many distinct characteristics that make it a favorite among birders. Discover more facts about this sapsucker and what makes it so amazing!

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus varius (occasionally Picus varius)
  • Common Name: Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Sapsucker, Spanish Woodpecker, Common Sapsucker
  • Lifespan: 4-6 years
  • Size: 8-9 inches
  • Weight: 1.5-1.7 ounces
  • Wingspan: 16-18 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Identification

Its upright posture, stout, thick, straight bill, and stiff, forked tail immediately identify this bird as a woodpecker, but birders should pay close attention to other field marks to properly identify the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Males have a black-and-white striped face with a red forehead and crown, as well as a red throat with a thick black border. The upperparts are barred black and white, with darker, less marked wings that show one bold white slash-like patch starting at the shoulder and extending down the wing. That patch is also boldly visible on the upperwings in flight. The rump is white, and the black tail has white barring on the central feathers. The underparts are paler and mottled black and white, but may appear grayish with a yellow-buff wash. The heaviest markings are on the flanks, and the intensity and extent of the yellow varies.

Females are similar to males but may show a buff wash on the back. The female's throat is white and the crown may be paler than on males. On both genders, the eyes are dark and the legs and feet are gray-black.

Juveniles are similar to adults but less boldly marked, lacking any red and with less distinct markings on the face. A buff-brown wash is visible on the head and back, and the black throat border may be absent or incomplete. Juveniles also show a scaly appearance on the breast and flanks.

While these woodpeckers are generally silent, they do have a nasal mewing or squawking call that may be either short or can be drawn out with a slight wavering at the end. The drumming pattern is irregular and lasts 4-6 seconds. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers will drum on metal surfaces such as signs, gutters, or vents to increase the resonance and more broadly proclaim their territory.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker at a Suet Feeder
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker at a Suet Feeder. Alex Butterfield / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Female
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Female. Brandon Trentler / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Juvenile Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
Juvenile Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Tim Lenz / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Male
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Male. Dan Pancamo / Flickr / Used With Permission

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Habitat and Distribution

These migratory woodpeckers prefer relatively open forests or woodland edges, and are most often found in deciduous or mixed deciduous and coniferous forests. Softer woods such as maple, birch, alder, aspen, and hickory are preferred, and they are often found in parks, orchards, gardens, and yards where mature trees are available.

Migration Pattern

The yellow-bellied sapsucker's summer breeding range extends from eastern Alaska through the boreal forests of Canada to Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, as well as south to eastern North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and throughout New England. In winter, the birds move to the eastern and southern United States from eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut to Kentucky, southern Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. The winter range extends throughout Mexico and Central America as far south as Panama, and these woodpeckers also winter in the Caribbean.

Vagrant sightings are regularly recorded much further west of this bird's expected range, particularly during fall migration and throughout the winter. Very rare sightings occur in Iceland, Ireland, and Great Britain.

Behavior

These woodpeckers are generally solitary or may be seen in pairs during the breeding season. While foraging, they drill two types of holes into appropriate trees: small, deeper round holes or wider rectangular holes. They defend these wells from other woodpeckers and hummingbirds, and will work to maintain the larger holes to keep sap flowing. In flight, their deep wing beats create an undulating, swooping flight path.

Diet and Feeding

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are omnivorous and eat a wide range of foods, including sap, insects, fruit, berries, nuts, buds, and seeds. When feeding, they lick at the wells or may forage on the ground for ants or hawk insects from the air. Their food sources change seasonally depending on what food is most abundant and easiest to find.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds that mate after a brief courtship that includes drumming duets and chasing prospective partners around trees. A pair will work together over the course of 7-10 days to excavate a nesting cavity, generally 6-60 feet above the ground. No nesting material is used, though some wood chips from the excavation may remain in the cavity when the eggs are laid. The nesting cavities may be reused for several years if they remain in suitable condition.

Eggs and Young

The white eggs are oval- or elliptically-shaped, and there are 4-7 per brood. Both parents share incubation duties for 12-13 days, and after hatching both parents feed the young chicks for 25-30 days. After the young woodpeckers can leave the nest, both parents teach them about sapsucking.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers will hybridize with red-naped sapsuckers and red-breasted sapsuckers where the species' ranges overlap. Proper identification of the offspring can be difficult or impossible because of similarities in plumage between the species.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Conservation

These birds are not considered threatened or endangered, but they are occasionally persecuted because of a belief that their wells may damage trees. While it is true that a heavily drilled tree may suffer, this is rare and not usually a cause for concern. In many areas, populations yellow-bellied sapsuckers are expanding because of increasing second growth forest with favored tree types.

Tips for Backyard Birders

These birds will readily visit woodpecker-friendly backyards with mature trees, where they will feed at suet feeders or may sip from hummingbird feeders. These sapsuckers also have a sweet tooth and may eat jelly or be enticed by sweet kitchen scraps such as bits of donuts or cookies. Because of the limited nutritional value of these scraps, however, they should only be offered on rare occasions and never in great quantities,

How to Find This Bird

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are not difficult to find within their range if birders visit suitable habitats with appropriate mature trees. Watch for these birds to be hitching up trees as they forage, and note the drilling patterns on trees or flowing sap to see where yellow-bellied sapsuckers are most active.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Picidae bird family includes more than 250 species of woodpeckers, piculets, flamebacks, flickers, and sapsuckers. There are many fun things to learn about woodpeckers, and birders interested in these birds should also check out:

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