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11 Facts About Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers

The sound of a drumming Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are hard to miss. The repetitive pecking sounds like the bird is punching out morse code. This interesting bird has some unique traits that set it apart from other woodpeckers, including a sap-eating habit, long migrations, and a love of young forests. In this article, we dive into 11 facts about yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

11 Facts about Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers

1. Males and females have just one noticeable difference in appearance. 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Yellow-bellied sapsucker | image by dfaulder via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Like most woodpeckers, male and female Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers look similar. They have a black back with white spots and a white wing patch. Their heads are black with two white stripes and a red crown. They have a black chest patch and white belly washed with yellow (hence their name). The yellow coloring can vary quite a bit, some some birds looking very pale and others having a deep and obvious yellow coloring. The only difference is males have a red throat and females have a white throat.

2. They live in the eastern half of North America, Mexico, and Central America. 

If you live east of the Great Plains, you have a chance at seeing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In the spring and summer, the birds reside in the northern reaches of the United States and most of Southern Canada. Their territory extends far west into the plains and forests of Canada.

In the winter, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers migrate south into the Southeastern United States and parts of Florida, the mid-atlantic states, and Texas. They also fly outside of the United States south into Mexico, Central America, and most of the Caribbean islands.

They adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions in their wintering zones. Some birds have been spotted in elevations as high as 10,000 feet. 

3. They are a type of woodpecker. 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling
Yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling | image by USFWSmidwest via Wikimedia Commons

Upon hearing their name, you might not assume that the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a type of woodpecker. Sapsuckers belong to the genus Sphyrapicus, which is part of the woodpecker subfamily. While they look like and act like woodpeckers, sapsuckers are set apart for fixating more on sap than insects in their diet.  

They drill rows of holes in the bark of young, fast-growing trees, then lap up the sap when it oozes into the holes. These rows of holes are often called sap-wells. Insects are often attracted to these sap wells and get stuck in the sticky resin, and the sapsuckers will happily eat them. They do include insects in their diet and feed them to their young.  

They fly, balance on trees, and nest the same way other woodpeckers do. 

4. You can attract them to your feeder with suet. 

Because insects make up a small percentage of the diet of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, they’re not likely to visit your bird feeders. While they aren’t as commonly seen at suet feeders as species like the Downey or Red-bellied woodpecker, they may still occasionally be attracted to them. If you live in the southeastern United States, offer some protein rich suet in a cage during the colder months. 

If you live in their warm-weather range and you have fruit trees in your yard, watch out! Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers often visit fruit orchards to drill sap and eat fruit. 

5. Unlike woodpeckers, they target live trees.

Most woodpeckers choose dead trees because their bark is weaker and easier to get behind, and they are more likely to be infested with wood-eating insects and larvae.

But to get free flowing sap, sapsuckers must select live trees. Although they may target sick or injured trees for their wells. They harvest sap by tapping the tree, similar to how maple syrup is harvested. 

They also select trees with sweeter sap because of its higher nutritional value. Whether you live in the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s cold weather or warm weather habitat, having fast-growing trees of the right type is one way to entice this bird to your yard.

Trees they look for include sugar maples, red maples, paper birch, and hickory. Other parts of this woodpecker’s diet include insects, which they grab off of nearby leaves and tree bark. They are partial to ants.

6. They are the only migratory woodpecker from Eastern North America. 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Yellow-bellied sapsucker | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s migrate regularly with the seasons, while most U.S. woodpeckers remain in their range year-round. A contributing factor to why this occurs is the rate of movement in trees’ sap in different parts of their range. 

If an area of the range is depleted of fresh sap, it doesn’t make sense to remain there for any longer than necessary. It follows that the birds would look for fresh territory with new trees to harvest sap from. 

7. They thrive in habitats affected by human disturbance. 

Some woodpeckers, especially the now-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, relied on old-growth forests for habitat, finding prey, and nesting. The destruction of many of those forests led to its decline and eventual extinction.

Fortunately, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers do not suffer from a reliance on old-growth forests. Instead, these sap-eating woodpeckers thrive in young forests. Young trees grow faster than old trees.

Their sap moves up and down their trunks and branches more quickly, making these types of trees much more attractive to sapsuckers.

8. Dead trees are their favorite nesting sites. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male) | image by Laurie Sheppard, US Fish & Wildlife Service via Flickr

Like most other species of woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are cavity nesters. This means that instead of building an exposed nest on a tree branch, they nest in an enclosed area like a rotten tree or snag. Males do almost all the work of excavating a nest site.

They bore into the soft, weak wood of dead trees to make a cavity up to 10 inches deep. The wood chips he produces during excavation serve as the nest floor; there is no other cushioning. Birds are often loyal to the same tree year after year, but they usually excavate a new nest cavity each time. 

9. Mated pairs work together to raise young. 

Males and females divide the work of incubating eggs, raising chicks, and teaching their offspring almost in half. After the male excavates a satisfactory nest cavity, the female lays their eggs and the pair takes turns incubating. Only the male incubates the eggs at night. 

Once the eggs hatch, the male and female retrieve food for their nestlings. They fledge in about a month. Once they can fly, they stick around their parents for up to 10 days while they learn how to drill for sap.

10. Both males and females vigorously defend their territory. 

Drilling and tapping on echoing surfaces is one way that the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker notifies other birds of its territory. They have been known to drum on street signs and chimney flashing along with natural materials like snags or well-situated branches. 

They intersperse the drumming noise of their bark-drilling with a call that sounds similar to ‘meow’ or a subdued squeaky toy. Males are more territorial than females, especially during breeding season when they want to attract a mate. 


11. They spend most of their time tending their sapwells.

It takes a lot of sap to satisfy a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! Most of this bird’s time goes into drilling and maintaining sapwells throughout its territory. The woodpecker drills two types of sapwells depending on the season.

In spring, it makes tiny circular holes in the bark, which capture sap moving upwards. Later in the season, they excavate rectangular indentions which ooze sap moving downwards from the tree’s leaves. These indentions, called wells, must be regularly maintained and excavated. 

Other animals, such as Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, visit the wells Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make. They rely on the high sugar content of midsummer sap to support their diet.