By Tom Dennis
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius
Another spring arrival is being sighted in country woodlots as well as in the city and suburbs. At first glance you may think the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker but then you notice some striking differences. This medium-sized woodpecker, like other members of the Picidae family, has a drumming call as well as vocalization calls that are unique to the species. Read on and learn why they are a beautiful and special bird to have in your world.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are a medium-sized woodpecker with strikingly bold markings that when viewed in multiple perspectives show that a master designer with an eye for balance and beauty did a work of wonder! Males have a black and white striped face with the front stripe curving from throat to cheek, then back, behind and below the eye, and finishing with a graceful curve up and over the top edge of the bill. This stripe is set off by a red cap and he also has a red throat, bordered with a black bib. The namesake yellow-belly is a light yellow wash that increases in brightness with a narrow border around the bib. The back is mottled black and buff with a white rump followed by a tail that has a center stripe of black and white chevrons bordered on the full length with black feathers. The wings are dark with a series of spotted stripes and a large white shoulder patch. All that said, you must see it to appreciate it. Females are similar but having a white throat and juveniles are browner overall and lack the bright head and throat pattern. They are 5 to 9 inches long, have a wingspan of 16 to 18 inches, and weigh an average of 1.8 ounces.
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This bird is one of seven woodpecker species found in Southeastern Michigan and one of only two that are not present here year-round. The summer breeding range covers most of the Canadian provinces and the Northeastern and Northcentral United States with Michigan being the southernmost border in the Northcentral states. The Northeastern range extends southward as far as North Carolina in higher elevations of the Appalachians. When breeding they are generally found in deciduous and mixed coniferous forests but during the non-breeding season they are on forest edges, small woodlots, large trees in pastures, suburban areas, and even palm groves as winter migration takes them as far south as Honduras and Cuba. They excavate large nest cavities in live deciduous trees preferring species of Poplar and Birch. Males arrive about a week before females and begin the excavation and once she arrives they both finish the nest during which time a courtship ritual of dances, bill touching, and verbal calls from near and from a distance continue during a two to four week period culminating in mating and a clutch of four to seven eggs. The chicks are fed by both parents and the food is primarily insects which are sometimes coated with a delicious sappy topping prior to offering to the young.
The name sapsucker is descriptive of the “sap well” drilling activity from which these birds feed on the liquid sap, tree fibrous material, or “bast”, on the outer “healing” edges of the wells, and on the insects attracted to the resulting sap flow. Preferred sap sources include Poplar, Birch, Red Maple, Willow, Elm, Pine, Spruce, and Serviceberry. The drilling activity rarely affects the health of the host tree and with the birds’ preferred arthropod foods being beetles and ants, they benefit us and the forests with insect control. They also eat fruits, nuts, berries, and buds in early spring when other food sources are in low supply. During the fall season, sap is the primary food of choice.
Their unique vocalizations include meows and soft churring sounds, squealing calls early in the mating season, and a rattle call in aggressive encounters (usually over territory). The drumming is subdued compared to most woodpeckers and it sounds to me like a two-part drum roll with a five-beat “splat” followed by a three-beat “dub”; they need help from other birds to really make the song work!
I hope you are fortunate enough to see one or maybe a group of sapsuckers which are collectively known as a “slurp” of sapsuckers. It will be an unforgettable experience not to mention that it would be fun to say!
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, for meeting details and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.
Photo credit, Jacie Rose Sanders