June 19, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Wednesday, 23 November 2011 11:28
Two readers in recent weeks have sent us photos of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a sometimes controversial bird with a colorful name.
These woodpeckers seem to be most often spotted as they are passing through in the spring and fall, but that can be spotted any time of year since they may nest in our area and may overwinter. Although the Connecticut coast is about at the northern edge of their winter territory, ranges, as well all know, are changing with the gradually warming climate (enjoy last Sunday’s 68 degrees?).
As their name suggests, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers eat sap. They do so by drilling orderly little holes in the bark of a variety of trees. They drill hole after hole, one after another — evenly spaced and encircling the trunk. Any time you see rows of holes around a tree, you know a sapsucker’s paid a visit.Since it takes a little time for the sap to flow, the bird does the drilling first, and later returns to the beginning of its collection of holes.
The holes provide the sapsucker with two kinds of nutrition. The primary and more obvious food is the high-calorie sap. When the holes are drilled, sap flows out like blood from pinpricks. The sapsucker uses a brush-like tongue to lick up the sweets. The sap provides a lot of energy in the form of sugars, but probably also has vitamins and minerals.
However, in season, insects are drawn to the sweets. Some of these get stuck in the sticky juice, and becomes easy pickings for the sapsucker — and thus, sources of protein.
The sapsucker may have to chase away other birds — even chipmunks and red squirrels — from its miniature honey pots. For instance, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are attracted to the sweet sap as well as to the immobilized insects, and will dine on both.
Sapsuckers feed on a wide variety of trees, but fruit trees seem to be a favorite. We have had these birds visit our lone apple a number of times over the years — one was there on Saturday — and they seem to ignore all of the other tree species in and about the yard.
There has been debate and even controversy over whether Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are pests that damage yard, orchard and wild trees. Many arborists believe that repeated “attacks” by sapsuckers weaken a tree and at the very least, can kill branches and limbs.
The holes, they say, also open the tree to attack by disease organisms.
It is true that a tree subjected to repeated sapsucker drilling may be weakened and subjected to diseases. However, sapsuckers are probably not a serious threat to our trees.
For one thing, they are not overly common birds. I consider myself lucky if I see one a year.
For another, both the sapsucker and most of the trees it feeds off are natives. They have lived together for eons. Clearly, the sapsuckers are not killing off the hands that feed them. There is a natural balance in the way they obtain food from trees, and according to various accounts, rare is the tree that is seriously injured and dies from sapsucker visits.
Nonetheless, there are orchard owners and others who shoot sapsuckers. Killing one is, of course, illegal; the Migratory Bird Treaty protects the species as it does almost all of our songbirds.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are often described as shy birds, which may be one reason they are not often seen. Like squirrels, they will move to the far side of a tree trunk if they think they are being observed.
Many people are confused by the bird’s specific name. Yellow is not one of the colors the observer usually sees on this woodpecker, which has a black-and-white ladder-back, and a red cap, and, in the male, a red bib. There is a very light yellow wash to the underparts of the bird, however.
Like other woodpeckers, sapsuckers will visit suet feeders.
Mike Tschebull of Darien reports: “We have a half dozen gadwalls dabbling on our pond this morning [Nov. 16]. I had never seen them here before, and note they don’t fit the gadwall profile perfectly. These dabblers hybridize a bit, I guess.”
Family Bird Watching Class & “Christmas Bird Count” Practice, Saturday, Dec. 17, 1 to 2:30, $5, Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, RSVP 203-869-5272 x230 greenwich.audubon.org.
Copyright 2011 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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