Blue Ridge Naturalist: Have You Thanked A Sapsucker Today?

A Red-naped Sapsucker is an extraordinarily rare bird to see in the eastern half of the United States, but a male found its way to the author’s nature-friendly garden last fall. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

A regularly occurring winter visitor to Virginia is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a funny-sounding name to non-birders. But its eponymous name informs us that this northern bird sucks sap.

By making shallow wells on trunks and branches that fill with sap, the sapsucker obtains sugar—a source of carbohydrates that provides energy for the sapsucker and many other animals, such as squirrels, other species of birds, and insects (on warmish winter days) that come to also feed upon it.

Sadly, this species gets a bad rap. People accuse it of seriously injuring or killing trees and shrubs when it makes its sap wells. But this enduring suggestion is utter nonsense.

Because my interest in history is practically equal to my interest in nature, I have been on many estate tours on which I have noticed huge (i.e., old) trees covered in recent and decades-old sap wells. It should go without saying that those trees would not still be alive if sapsucker wells were detrimental to them. The reality is that sapsuckers do no more harm to your plants than do people who install taps into Sugar Maple trees so they can make maple syrup.

The indigenous peoples of the Lake States, southeastern Canada, New England, and the Appalachian Mountains knew and used maple syrup long before the arrival of European settlers. No authenticated information has been handed down explaining how they learned that maple sap could be a food source, but I have absolutely no doubt that nature led the way.

It is not at all unlikely that someone observed a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker making sap wells, just as I have done numerous times while eating my second breakfast (my first is when it’s still dark out) that consists of oatmeal sweetened with pure maple syrup. The person noticed how popular the sap was with a variety of animals, decided to taste it, and voila! A discovery for the ages.

The migration behavior of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker fits perfectly with my suggestion that this bird played a major role in the origination of maple syrup. These birds start to head north from Virginia by March, and few remain by April. They know when to get “home” for the spring thaw and the rising maple sap!

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is an eastern bird with closely related western relatives, one of which is the Red-naped Sapsucker. At one time, scientists considered these two birds to be the same species, even though they have differing field marks and their ranges do not overlap much at all.

On the morning of November 9, 2017, I heard a bird making a “crying” sound (as I described it in my notes) that was very similar to that of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, except that it was not quite right. The sound had a sad quality to it, as if something were amiss.

Finding the bird in my Autumn Olive just southeast of my house, I was very surprised to see that it was a sapsucker with an obvious red spot on the back of its head (called the “nape”). It was a Red-naped Sapsucker! This was quite an exciting find because this species breeds in the Rocky Mountain region north to British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, and would not normally be here.

However, at the time of my initial sighting, I had no idea just how rare a visitor this bird was in the East. After announcing its presence in my yard on the Virginia bird-listing Internet site, a birder wrote to tell me that this species had only ever been recorded in this half of the country a few times, and that was around Canton, Ohio. Thus, a Red-naped Sapsucker would be a first for the state of Virginia!

The bird’s most telling feature was the red on the back of the head, but it also had much less black on the breast than a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which seems to be very typical of Red-naped Sapsuckers. I discovered this difference by looking at many, many photos online and in books, but surprisingly, I never found mention of it in the literature.

“My” bird was a male because its throat was fully red (the female’s throat is white and red), but it was obviously not an adult because it still showed areas of brownish mottled coloration where an adult male would have more of a white-and-black contrast to its appearance. It showed some adult coloration because the immature Red-naped Sapsucker starts attaining its adult plumage by November of its first year, unlike the immature Yellow-bellied that attains its adult plumage by the following spring.

The bird visited my yard at least 10 times between its first appearance in November and its last in early December, exhibiting interesting behavior that, along with its brownish plumage, corroborated that it was a young bird.

The first few times it was here, it made plaintive sounds—as you would expect from a young bird—as it followed adult Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers around the yard. A couple of times it even landed right next to an adult, a male one time and a female the next, which is not typical adult behavior. Additionally, adult birds would not tolerate this closeness from another adult bird, but would put up with it briefly—as they did—from a young one.

I’ll probably never see a Red-naped Sapsucker in my yard again, and it is highly unlikely anyone in Virginia will ever find one of these birds here. However, it is not hard to spot Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers from fall through early spring, and if you love pure maple syrup as I do, you just might want to quietly thank these birds for the role their species very likely played in bringing you this marvelous natural product!


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