I received a photo recently of an ornamental shrub that had sustained damage in the form of holes drilled in the stems and removal of portions of the bark. The damage was extensive enough on the relatively small trunks that the health of the plant could be affected.
It was the work of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, an otherwise handsome member of the woodpecker family that is a common winter resident in our woods and urban tree canopy.
If you are reasonably observant and walk through the woods any time of the year you may have noticed the signs of the sapsucker’s work. They typically target thin-barked trees and shrubs like maples, hollies, and viburnums, but I have seen sapsucker holes in various oaks, hickories, and tulip poplars too. Look for conspicuous quarter inch holes in horizontal rows encircling the trunks of the trees. I have seen large diameter trees absolutely pock-marked with holes, evidence that generations of the opportunistic birds return to productive trees year after year. Apparently the drilling doesn’t damage the host plant if it is a large tree, but I have seen smaller ornamentals weakened by the sapsucker’s work.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill their holes into the sapwood of the chosen tree then return a short time later to feed on the sweet oozing sap. The sap can also attract hungry insects that further supplement the woodpecker’s diet on warmer days. Wintering warblers, kinglets, and hummingbirds have learned to capitalize by visiting the sap wells to steal a drink and perhaps glean insects too.
Find a tree with fresh holes and watch for a few minutes and you will likely get a look at the bird as it returns to feed. They approach silently without a lot of fanfare. It’s a mid-sized woodpecker larger than a downy woodpecker but smaller than a red-bellied woodpecker. They are generally silent but will give a cat-like call similar to that of a gray catbird. The adults are tastefully plumaged; males have a red throat while the female has white. The younger birds are browner.
Sapsuckers nest in the higher elevations of our mountain region but winter all the way to the coast. They will depart the wintering grounds by early April, giving our local ornamentals a good six months of a growing season to heal from the winter onslaught.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.