|A female yellow-bellied sapsucker on sycamore tree
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 22, 2010)
There is a yellow-bellied sapsucker in my yard. The bird – a female – has claimed a specific tree for herself. The tree is a 40-foot tall sycamore and the sapsucker is doing just that – sucking the sap that drips out of holes it has drilled through the bark.
I noticed the holes several weeks before I noticed the bird. Starting about six feet above the ground, a series of pea-sized indentations encircles the trunk. The wells are closely spaced in horizontal lines that are not quite straight. They remind me of the type of puncture marks my husband makes when he’s trying rather unsuccessfully to locate a stud through sheetrock. The perforated rings continue one row above another. They cover about a four-foot tall section of the tree’s trunk.
At first, I thought some sort of boring insect was responsible for the damage but a visit from my daughter a few weeks ago proved my assumption incorrect.
“There’s a woodpecker on the sycamore tree,” Jenny said as she came inside from the front yard.
Grabbing my camera, I went outside to see. Sure enough, there on one side of the sycamore’s trunk was a black and white woodpecker with a bright red crown. Female yellow-bellied sapsuckers only have red markings on their heads while male birds have an additional splash of color on their necks.
The bird I was watching was clinging to the tree in an upright position. I started taking pictures from about 10 feet away. When I moved closer, the bird shifted sideways. It didn’t fly away. It simply scooted to a spot on the tree where it wouldn’t be visible.
Seven types of woodpeckers live in Florida year round but yellow-bellied sapsuckers are not among them. These eight to nine-inch long wood drillers spend most of the year in Canada and the northern United States. They wait until winter temperatures start to fall before flying south. After migration, sapsuckers seek out suitable winter homes. Once an appropriate habitat is located, each bird sets its sight on a few special trees. What it wants is sap, the watery solution of sugars, salts, hormones and minerals that circulates beneath a tree’s bark.
Using a percussive motion with its pointy bill, a yellow-bellied sapsucker drills through the tree’s outer bark to stimulate sap flow. It then eats the inner bark, licks the oozing liquid with its brush-like tongue and consumes any insects trapped within the sticky solution. Occasionally a yellow-bellied sapsucker will eat berries, fruit or even slugs but their main food flows beneath the inner bark of trees.
Once a tree has been “claimed,” the bird returns to it day after day pecking away for needed sustenance. These food sources are so essential to the sapsucker’s survival, it will defend “its tree” when other birds and small mammals are attracted to the sap wells.
In a few days, many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. For some of us, however, Thanksgiving is a year-round celebration. There are moments every day – many moments – for which to be grateful. Discovering that a yellow-bellied sapsucker is a daily visitor to my yard is just one such moment. For that and for the many other wonders of nature, I am now and will always be filled with gratitude and awe.