Nature Profile


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus varius

Voice: Nasal, catlike meowing; drumming sound like Morse code.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are primarily forest dwelling birds but they tend to favor young woodlands and riparian habitats. They are the only eastern North American woodpecker to be completely migratory. Female sapsuckers tend to migrate farther south than do male sapsuckers. During breeding season their forest habitat preference includes trees such aspen, maple and birch. However during migration and in winter they can be found in orchards, palm groves, scrub and neighborhoods.

Sapsuckers depend on sap as their main food source. They drill several holes in horizontal rows primarily, but not exclusively, in maple, pecan, birch, pine, elm and some oak trees. In early spring yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill narrow, circular holes into the tree’s xylem, the inner part of the trunk, to feed on sap moving up to the branches. Once the tree leafs out, sapsuckers begin making shallower, rectangular holes in the phloem, the part of the trunk that carries sap down from the leaves. These holes must be continually maintained with fresh drilling, so the sap will continue to flow. Besides sap, yellow-bellied sapsuckers also eat insects, including ants and spiders. They can catch insects by gleaning them off the tree or at times can perch at the edge of a tree branch and launch after flying insects to capture them in midair. Sapsuckers also forage in orchards, where they drill holes in the trees and eat fruit.

Most yellow-bellied sapsuckers breed in northern parts of the United States and Canada. However Ohio, including Holden, hosts a small nesting population. They are territorial during breeding, and frequently use man made objects for territorial drumming. Street signs, metal flashing and buildings intensify the Morse code like tapping of a territory. They often reunite for consecutive breeding seasons but their loyalty from year to year is more related to the nesting area or even a particular nesting tree than to a mate. Pairs stay together through the nesting season, and both sexes excavate the cavity nine to 45 feet above the ground in about two to four weeks. The entrance to the nest is 1.5 inches in diameter and the cavity itself may be up to 14 inches deep. Five to six white eggs are laid in wood chips left over from the excavation. No other lining is placed within the nest. Young are fed insects by both sexes. Fledglings leave nest in 25-29 days and are dependant on the parents for 10 more days.

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