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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus)

Sapsucker Damage,Sapsucker

A sapsucker is a type of woodpecker found primarily in North America. The term “sapsucker” refers to several species of the genus Sphyrapicus, part of the larger family Picidae, which includes all woodpeckers.

Sapsuckers are named for their unique feeding behavior. Unlike many woodpeckers that peck into wood to find insects, sapsuckers drill tiny holes into the bark of trees and consume the sap that seeps out. These holes, or “wells”, can also attract insects, which the sapsucker will eat as well. Therefore, their diet consists of tree sap, insects, and occasionally fruit or cambium.

Host Plants

Sapsuckers have a preference for certain tree species that provide them with a reliable source of sap. The specific host trees can vary depending on the region and the particular species of sapsucker. However, some common trees that are often targeted by sapsuckers include:

  • Birch trees (Betula spp..): Sapsuckers are known to feed on the sap of birch trees frequently. These trees produce a sweet sap that is attractive to birds.
  • Maple trees (Acer spp.): Sapsuckers are particularly fond of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and other maple species. Maple sap is high in sugar, making it an excellent food source for sapsuckers.
  • Fruit trees: Sapsuckers may also feed on the sap of various fruit trees, such as apple (Malus spp.) and cherry (Prunus spp.) trees. These trees often produce sugary sap that can be appealing to sapsuckers.
  • Pine trees (Pinus spp.): Some species of sapsuckers may feed on the sap of pine trees. While pine sap may not be as sweet as other trees, it can still serve as a food source for these birds.
  • Spruce and fir trees (Picea spp., Abies spp.): Certain sapsuckers have been observed feeding on the sap of spruce and fir trees. These trees produce resinous sap that can be a valuable food resource.

Regions impacted

Sapsuckers are primarily found in North America. There are four species of sapsuckers:

  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius): These birds are found throughout most of Canada and the eastern United States. They migrate south in the winter to the southeastern United States, West Indies, and Central America.
  • Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis): These birds live in the western part of North America, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. They migrate to Mexico in winter.
  • Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber): Found along the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska to Baja California. Some of them migrate, but many are year-round residents.
  • Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus): These birds are also found in the western part of North America, particularly in coniferous forests in the mountains.

Each of these species has slightly different physical characteristics, but they all share the sap-drinking behavior that gives them their common name.


  • Sapsuckers are medium-sized woodpeckers, generally measuring between 7.5 to 9 inches (19-23 cm) in length.
  • One of their most notable features is their long, pointed bill that is perfectly designed for drilling into tree bark. They also possess a specially adapted tongue, which is long, extendable, and tipped with a brush-like structure to help them lap up sap from trees.
  • In terms of coloration, sapsuckers have a somewhat uniform black, white, and red plumage, but the pattern varies between species. For instance, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a black-and-white striped face, black wings with white patches, and a yellow-tinted breast. The Red-breasted Sapsucker, on the other hand, has a deep red head and breast, contrasting sharply with its black wings and back and pale belly.
  • Another common feature in sapsuckers is their distinct wing and back pattern. Their wings and back are usually black with white barring or spots. Some species have a solid black back while others have a barred black and white back.
  • Both sexes have red foreheads, but the extent of the red varies by species and sex. Males often have more extensive red on the head than females. Their undersides vary from pale (almost white) to yellowish.
  • The bird’s body shape is typical of woodpeckers, with a short body, long tail, and strong, sturdy legs perfect for clinging to tree trunks.
  • Like all woodpeckers, sapsuckers have zygodactyl feet—two toes facing forward and two facing backward—allowing them to maintain a strong grip on tree trunks and branches.

Life Cycle

Sapsuckers, like other woodpeckers, have an interesting life cycle that’s closely tied to their environment and their unique behavior.

Breeding Season: The sapsucker’s life cycle begins in the spring, their breeding season. Males establish territories and begin courtship by drumming on trees and engaging in display flights. Both males and females participate in excavating a nest cavity in a tree, often choosing a dead tree or a dead portion of a living tree for this purpose.

Egg-Laying and Incubation: The female sapsucker lays a clutch of 4-7 white eggs, and both parents share the incubation duties, which lasts about 12-13 days.

Fledging: After hatching, the chicks are blind, nearly featherless, and completely dependent on their parents. Both parents feed and care for the chicks by regurgitating sap and insects. After about 25-29 days, the young sapsuckers are ready to leave the nest.

Juvenile Stage: After fledging, the young birds stay near their parents for a few more weeks, learning to find food and avoid predators. By late summer or early fall, they’re fully independent.

Winter and Migration: Many sapsuckers migrate to warmer climates in the winter, though some stay in their breeding range if it’s not too cold. During this time, they continue their sap-feeding behavior, though they supplement their diet with more insects, fruit, and seeds.

Maturity: Sapsuckers reach sexual maturity and begin to breed when they’re about one year old. Their lifespan is typically around 5-8 years, though some individuals have been known to live longer.

This cycle repeats annually, with sapsuckers returning to the same areas year after year to breed and raise their young. Each stage of the life cycle is influenced by the availability of food and suitable nesting sites and by environmental conditions.

Damage and Detection

Their feeding behavior can cause damage to trees and pose a problem for homeowners and tree professionals.

Sapsucker Damage: Sapsuckers feed by drilling a series of small holes into the bark of a tree to access the sap and the insects attracted to it. Unlike other woodpeckers that chisel into trees to find insects, sapsuckers feed on the sap itself. The damage is often visible as a distinct pattern of closely spaced, small, shallow holes. They often return to the same tree multiple times, which can cause extensive damage over time.

If the damage is widespread and continuous around the tree’s circumference, it can girdle the tree, disrupting the flow of nutrients and water, leading to the tree’s decline or even death. Young trees and thin-barked species are particularly vulnerable.

Detection: Signs of sapsucker damage include small, round holes in the tree bark. These holes are usually in horizontal or vertical lines and can be found at any height on the tree, but they’re most commonly in the upper portions. You may also see oozing sap, frass (wood debris from the drilling), or the birds themselves.

You might also observe other wildlife, such as hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, taking advantage of the sap flow from the holes created by the sapsuckers. However, remember that not all holes in trees are due to sapsuckers. Other insects, diseases, or physical damage can cause similar symptoms, so it’s essential to correctly identify the cause to manage it effectively.

Prevention and Control

Preventing and controlling sapsucker damage can be challenging but is possible with a combination of methods:

Physical Barriers: This is one of the most effective ways to deter sapsuckers. Wrap hardware cloth, burlap, or another type of protective material around the area of the tree where the bird is feeding. The covering should be loose enough to allow for growth and not girdle the tree.

Visual Deterrents: Sapsuckers, like most birds, are frightened by sudden movements or objects that mimic predators. Reflective tape, fake owls or hawks, or windsocks can be used to scare them away. Move these objects around every few days to keep the sapsuckers from getting used to them.

Taste and Smell Repellents: There are several commercially available repellents that can be applied to the tree to deter sapsuckers. These products are usually sticky and unpleasant for the birds, discouraging them from feeding on the tree.

Providing Alternative Food Sources: Providing an alternative food source like a suet feeder could divert the bird’s attention from your trees.

Tree Health: A healthy, vigorous tree can withstand sapsucker damage better than a stressed one. Proper watering, mulching, and fertilizing practices will help keep your trees healthy.

Professional Help: If sapsucker damage is severe, consider reaching out to a local extension service or bird control professional. They can provide additional advice tailored to your situation and local bird species.

Remember, sapsuckers are protected by law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and harming the birds is illegal. Always use non-lethal control methods and seek professional advice if needed.

While every effort has been made to describe these plants accurately, please keep in mind that height, bloom time, and color may differ in various climates. The description of these plants has been written based on numerous outside resources.

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