If you’ve ever been called a sapsucker before, you’d likely not forget it. Your ears burn and turn red, your nostrils flare and you get all upset. Then, if you’re called a yellow-bellied sapsucker, whoa, them’s fightin’ words. But do not despair. There is actually a bird called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) that visits Camp Salmen regularly. Perhaps this is what the person you thought was tormenting you actually meant. Since the bird is so pretty, crafty and clever and there are a lot worse things you might be called, it would be a good choice to take it all as a compliment.
Sapsuckers are woodpeckers. Their modus operandi is to peck a hole through the bark of a tree so the tree bleeds sap and then suck it up. (They actually stick their tongue out of the front of their bill and lap it up, doggie style. It is thought their saliva contains an anticoagulant to keep their bills from sealing shut from the sticky sap.) They return to these “sap wells” to maintain them and keep them flowing and can actually consume about a cup-full of the watery sap each day.
As an extra bonus, insects are attracted to the sweet sap and the sapsucker, like the carnivore it is, scarfs these up to round out their nutritional intake. They’ve been observed grabbing an ant, dredging it around in the sap like you or I would eat a Chicken McNugget and taking it to go to their young as a sweet treat.
The bird has beautiful, contrasting black and white striping, and a blaze of scarlet red on its head and throat. True to its name, it has a splash of yellow on its chest and belly. Sight unseen, they make a curious mewing sound like a cat in the woods and peck at trees with a slow, irregular tap, not a bit like Woody Woodpecker’s staccato.
Take a look at some of the trees in the woods, especially the thinned-skinned varieties like birch and Red Maple and note the rows of small, neat holes on the bark. This is the methodical work of the sapsucker. They clutch to the tree’s sides and lay a fresh pattern of holes through the bark and into the tree’s phloem, where its vascular systems lays. The tree responds by oozing its sweet juice into the wound.
Sapsuckers have been known to put so many holes up and down a tree’s trunk that they interrupt the flow of its vital juices, effectively girdling and killing it. Arborists trying to protect their orchards from these beasts are disappointed to find that, as a protected migratory species (they fly to Central America and the Caribbean and back every year), these birds mustn’t be killed outright, just discouraged. If an orchard operator has a sapsucker infestation, about the best he or she can legally do is try tricks like wrapping the tree’s trunks with burlap, use a sticky goo called “Tanglefoot” or partially give in by sacrificing certain trees in the orchard favored by the birds. At this point, arborists, at least, might have every right to be mad at being called a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.