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Yellow-bellied sapsucker

By: Garden Gate staff
You may have seen this bird in your yard, but you are more likely to have seen its work. The yellow-bellied sapsucker drills tidy rows of ¼-inch holes in tree trunks to feed on the sap.

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Yellow-bellied sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius

IDENTIFICATION – You may have seen this bird in your yard, but you are more likely to have seen its work. The yellow-bellied sapsucker drills tidy rows of ¼-in. holes in tree trunks to feed on the sap. It chooses trees with high sugar content in the sap, mostly pines, spruces and maples. It will return to the same trees time after time.

The drilling action of the bird won’t necessarily kill the tree, but the holes can be an entry for disease organisms. If the trunk is girdled – the bark destroyed all the way around – the part of the tree above the damage may die.

CONTROL – Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have favorite trees, so it probably won’t bother other trees. They are migratory birds, overwintering in the southern United States and moving north into Canada for the summer, so you may only have them in your area for a few weeks. Damage is worst in spring when sap flow is at its peak.

You can protect small trees by wrapping a plastic sheet around the trunk to keep the bird from getting a grip. Take the wrap off when the birds leave so it doesn’t trap moisture. Don’t worry about plugging the holes – the tree will form scar tissue. Mature trees aren’t as likely to be permanently damaged, so you don’t have to figure out how to climb them to protect their bark.

Try noisemakers and frightening devices (like shiny, fluttering strips of old video tape) to scare the birds away. The yellow-bellied sapsucker is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so it’s illegal to shoot it or destroy its eggs.

Published: March 18, 2008
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