They can be heard from in early spring to late summer; a lazy rat-a-tat-tat along with an occasional mewing sound, like what a cat might make. For the most part, they are a relatively attractive and harmless bird, with a red hood, distinctive black and white markings and of course a yellow belly.
When it comes to eves troughs though, or wood siding, the noise and damage they make can be very irritating, not to mention costly. Worse yet, if there are enough pairs, the injury they do to trees may result in multiple mortalities, usually as a result of girdling.
A few years ago, a landowner wondered what caused the death of a laurel leaf willows in a shelterbelt. At first glance it almost looked like herbicide damage, but closer inspection proved the culprit was young sapsuckers doing what they do best.
Native tree and brush species are often the best choice for shelterbelts because of their inherent resistance to sapsuckers. They usually manage to rebound while non-native species do not always recover.
Contrary to popular belief, the yellow-bellied sapsucker attacks only living trees, pecking horizontal rows of small, regularly spaced, round to squarish, quarter inch size holes through the bark. Unlike other woodpeckers, who focus on diseased or dying trees while looking for grubs or worms to eat, sapsuckers seek the carbohydrate-rich sap – which is 20-30 percent sugar – of live trees.
Their name is somewhat misleading though. They don’t actually "suck” the sap from the holes, but lap it up, with a rough tongue that can extend outward the length of their beak. Perhaps a more apt name would be the yellow-bellied sap-lapper. Even hummingbirds are lappers, not suckers.
Control options are limited as the sapsucker is protected under the Migratory Birds Act, which contains regulations to protect migratory birds, their eggs, and their nests from hunting, trafficking and commercialization.
Damage to trees and buildings can be prevented to some extent, by placing noisemakers and devices to frighten the birds in trees and areas where they are active. Individual trees may also be wrapped with burlap or some other protective material during the spring and summer seasons.
Tree damage can be dealt with by clearing the holes of hardened sap and debris, then spraying the area with pruning paint to reduce sap flow and prevent the entry of insects and disease.
As a keystone species, sapsuckers play a critical role in the natural environment. When it comes to nesting behavior, sapsuckers prefer excavating cavities in fungus infected aspens, which are subsequently used for the same purpose by two species of swallows.
The holes drilled in living trees are often referred to as nature’s soda fountains, exuding sweet sap to provide nutrition to more than three dozen different species of birds.
One of spring’s early arrivals is the ruby-throated hummingbird. It is known to follow the sapsucker around, scaring off other birds while supplementing its diet of nectar from early blooming flowers, with tree sap and the insects that stick to it.
The sap also nourishes a variety of insects and animals including squirrels, bats, porcupines and about 20 different insect families including bees, wasps, and moths. It’s proven that the diversity and size of forest populations is greater in areas where there is sapsucker activity.
As the season progresses and the sap wanes in one tree variety, the industrious sapsucker will move to the next tree species offering the best sap flow. As berries and nuts ripen, they will supplement their diet with what is available, including insects and a substantial quantity of ants.
While there is little consolation trying to sleep with an annoying rat-a-tat-tat in the background or dealing with damage to an ornamental or fruit tree there is a place for the not always popular sapsucker in the bigger world of pollinator and other species.