Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus varius

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Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker - Male. Ed Schneider

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.

Common Name: Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Sapsucker, Spanish Woodpecker, Common Sapsucker

Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus varius (occasionally Picus varius)

Scientific Family: Picidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Stout, thick, straight, black
  • Size: 8-9 inches long with 16-18-inch wingspan, long wings, deep chest, forked tail
  • Colors: Red, black, white, yellow, brown, buff, gray
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. 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 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.

    Species is monotypic.

    Foods: Sap, insects, fruit, berries, nuts, buds, seeds (See: Omnivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    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 backyards where mature trees are available.

    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.

    Vocalizations:

    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.

    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. When feeding, they lick at the wells or may forage on the ground for ants or hawk insects from the air. In flight, their deep wing beats create an undulating, swooping flight path.

    Reproduction:

    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.

    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 altricial young 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, and proper identification of the offspring can be difficult or impossible because of similarities in plumage between the species.

    Attracting Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers:

    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.

    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 of these woodpeckers are expanding because of increasing second growth forest with favored tree types.

    Similar Birds:

    • Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus)
    • Red-Naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis)
    • Red-Breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)
    • Nubian Woodpecker (Campethera nubica)
    • Cardinal Woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens)
    • Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

    Photo – Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker – Male © Ed Schneider
    Photo – Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker – Female © Gerry

    Photo – Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker – Juvenile © Fyn Kynd