Bird Watcher's General Store

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Some Sapsuckers Stay for the Winter

Dear Bird Folks,

Somewhere in this camera is a photo of a strange woodpecker that has been coming to my suet feeder. But I’m not very good at getting the image to appear on the viewing screen. Wait! There it is. Oh, darn, it’s gone again. Maybe I’ll just give you the camera and see if you can find it.

– Joanne, Truro, MA


It’s okay, Joanne,

I have the same trouble with my camera. At first I think I know what I’m doing. Then I hit some kind of hidden button and suddenly I’m looking at a weird screen that I didn’t even know existed. The only way I can get things back to normal is to shut off the camera and start all over again. Don’t you miss the old days when we just handed our film to the clerks at Fotomat and let them deal with it? Luckily, young Casey is working today. Hand your camera to Casey; he won’t have any trouble solving your camera and identifying your mystery bird. It’s not that you and I couldn’t have figured it out eventually, but we could also have accidently deleted all of your photos or started a small fire. So, it’s better that we let the kid do it.

There are a handful of common bird names that comedians like to use as punch lines. The Dodo is one, the booby is another, and let’s not forget the coot. But the all-time classic funny bird name has to be the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and that’s exactly what you have eating on your feeder in Truro. Sapsuckers are actually woodpeckers. They are called “sapsuckers” because much of their diet is tree sap (plus insects, fruit and in Truro, suet). However, their name is inaccurate. Since birds don’t have lips, sapsuckers really can’t suck anything. Instead, they lap the sap with their tongues. But the birds complained about being called “sap-lappers,” so they were given the cutesy, alliterative sapsucker name instead. They like that name better.

North America has four species of sapsuckers, but only the yellow-bellied is found in the East. Back in its farming heyday, Massachusetts had very few Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, or any other woodpeckers for that matter. Farmers cleared all the trees and without trees, woodpeckers had nothing to peck and sapsuckers had nothing to suck…or lap. But when the trees returned, so did the woodpeckers. The most recent breeding bird survey tells us that our state’s population of sapsuckers is “strongly increasing.” Unfortunately, this increase isn’t taking place on Cape Cod. In fact, sapsuckers are fairly rare birds on the Cape. Why? Like us, sapsuckers are attracted to the tasty sap produced by maple trees and also birch trees; the Cape has very few maples or birches. It does have plenty of pitch pines, but pitch pine sap isn’t as appealing. (I know my car sure hates it.)

Before we continue, I’m going to talk a little bit about sap. (I know you didn’t ask, but I just read something about it so I’m going to add it to my answer, just to prove that I’m not one-dimensional.) In summer, the maple tree produces starch (sugar) just under the bark. Come spring, the tree draws water from the ground, which mixes with the previous summer’s sugar, creating delicious sap. When spring temperatures rise above freezing, pressure forms inside the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow up to the new buds. But if there is a wound in the tree, the pressure will force some of the sap out through the wound. Wounds can be caused by lightning, windstorms or lovers carving their initials. A wound can also be caused by a guy with a sugaring tap, or by a sapsucker. The syrup farmer collects the sap in large buckets, but sapsuckers don’t need that much. Instead, the birds chip out a series of small horizontal holes, called “sap wells.” These wells not only collect sap, which the birds quickly eat, but they also attract insects, which the birds also quickly eat.

When the original sap wells run dry, the bird simply drills more holes, usually just above the old ones. Other creatures also benefit from the sapsuckers’ handiwork. Hummingbirds build their nests close to sapsucker trees, so they too can drink from the sap wells. Hummers may even time their spring migration to take advantage of the sapsuckers’ wells. The next question is: Don’t all these holes damage the tree? The answer is yes; sapsuckers do damage trees. But they don’t cause nearly as much damage as other things do, like, say, the paper mill, which created the paper this article is written on. Besides, sapsuckers help hummingbirds migrate. Have the paper mills ever helped the hummingbirds? I think not.

Most Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breed in the northern states and in Canada, and spend winters in the southern states and Central America. Since Cape Cod doesn’t have the trees needed to attract breeding Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, we typically only see these birds during their spring and fall migrations. However, every few years a sapsucker or two chooses to spend the winter on the Cape and this winter seems to be a bonus year. I’ve had multiple reports of sapsuckers coming to suet feeders. So, you’re not alone.

Back in January, another lady brought in a camera with a photo of a sapsucker on her suet feeder, just like you did, Joanne. Her photo was actually better than yours, but she knew how to operate her camera so, unfortunately, her visit wasn’t nearly as much fun as yours was. So at the end of the day, we liked your visit better because “fun” trumps everything in our shop. Well, everything except money. I mean, let’s not get too crazy.