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Monday, October 17, 2011

A winter visitor checks in early

Sitting under the sycamore tree in my backyard, I heard a faint tapping and looked up to see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker exploring the trunk of the tree.  As usually happens at these times, I didn't have my camera on me, but I watched the bird as it went round and round and up and up the tree.  Then, suddenly, another bird joined the first one and there were two sapsuckers checking out my tree.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are winter visitors to our area, but it's not every winter that I have one in my yard, much less two, and even when I do see them, it is normally well into December.  I've never recorded one in my yard this early before.  I'm not sure what the early arrival of sapsuckers portends, if anything.  Will other winter birds be early this year?  Time will tell.

Although I didn't have my camera to get a picture of the birds, after they flew away, I went to examine the tree and there I found evidence that they had likely been here for a few days at least.

See all the parallel lines of tiny holes in the trunk of the tree?  They were made by sapsuckers.  This is how the birds got their name.  They create the tiny holes (which do not harm the tree, by the way) and sap runs from the holes.  The sap attracts insects and the woodpeckers come and eat the insects and also sip the sap.  Thus, "sapsucker"!

Here is a closer view of some of the holes.  The birds will return to the holes again and again to feed, possibly throughout the winter.  Maybe on one of these feeding trips, I'll be lucky enough to have my camera in hand!

UPDATE:  Tree owners sometimes worry unnecessarily about these holes in their trees.  I should probably have made the point in my original post that the tiny holes do not really pose a hazard for the trees.  They heal over very quickly unless the bird returns to them to keep them open and the sap flowing.  Once the birds leave, only the scars of the old holes are left.  This relationship has been going on for millenia and the birds and the trees have thrived.


  1. Hi Dorothy. I'll have to look out for them.
    Does that cause permanent damage to the tree?

  2. If you see those lines of parallel holes, you'll know that you've got a sapsucker, Jayne, and, no, the holes don't seem to actually bother the trees. They are very small and much like a pinprick to a large tree. Nearly every tree in my yard has such holes on the trunk, some of them years old.

  3. So interesting. I saw what looked like a speckled gray, white and black woodpecker on a tree outside my office. I've never seen this type of bird before. I wonder if it was a juvenile yellow bellied sapsucker? I will have to check the tree for the evidence.

  4. Look for a broad white stripe on the edge of the folded wing as the bird clings to the tree, Rambling Wren. The sapsucker is the only woodpecker in our area that has this stripe. Even the juveniles, which can appear brownish overall, will have the stripe. The adults will have the same black and white pattern as the Downy and the Hairy with red on the crown and, in the case of the male, on the throat. But they will ALL have the white stripe.