I have spent the last few days chasing elusive little suckers around my backyard. The suckers in question were saavy woodpeckers who, as temporary visitors to my little chunk of earth, were wary beyond belief. It is fairly easy to sneak up on one of “my” resident Downy or Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but one must be exceedingly patient when closing in on a migrant Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. When a pair is involved in the scenario, each armed with a set of alert eyes, the task is made even more challenging.
In short, these birds can be a royal pain in the neck. Long periods of looking skyward will do that to a middle aged body. The pain of Sapsucker watching was well worth it, however, because these attractive and animated birds are doubly perfect – or, to be more accurate – doubly nearly perfect. How can one ignore perfection?
When the Sapsuckers are in town you can bet that spring is perfectly official – in spite of what your porch thermometer might be saying! The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the perfect bird to herald the arrival of the season. Robins and bluebirds, because they often stay through the winter, are not true spring sentinels. Virtually all of the Sapsuckers migrate south and spend their winter months in the Southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America. You can bet that the bird you are seeing in southern Michigan is a new arrival. Unfortunately our southern sucker-sighting season is short. They pass through our region on their way to their breeding territories in the northern half of the state.
Medium-sized members of the woodpecker clan, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a nearly perfect common name. They are mottled black & white birds with red head features (the males have a red forehead and throat while the female lacks the red throat), but they do have a yellowish belly and feed on tree sap. Because they do not actually “suck” that sap we need to qualify the second part of their name, however. Sap-lapper or Sap-licker might be more accurate. They peck a line of shallow holes in tree trunks that look like the result of machine gun fire. These holes weep sugary sap and the birds make regular visits throughout the day to feed at their particular sap “wells.” Sapsuckers have a hairy tip on the end of their tongues which sops up the sweet liquid like a paper towel.
The sap-lappers hanging about my yard were very actively engaged in their profession. Covering a feeding territory which encompassed several backyards, the pair spent their daytime hours visiting the sap wells. It took about five to ten minutes to complete a feeding circuit. Upon arrival at a set of sap holes the birds rocked their heads back and forth like metronomes as they examined the weeping wells. Then they carefully probed selected openings with their furry tongues. Because they also eat the sap-seeking insects the sapsuckers made a few pecks to pick up these extra morsels. Each visit was short and they continued on their appointed duties without delay.
In my yard, the birds had sap works in my two Pecan trees (yes, I said Pecans) as well as several Black Walnuts, a Red Pine, at least one Red Maple and some of the large Cottonwoods across the creek. True to tradition, sapsuckers are not picky when it comes to sap trees. I can only imagine that each tree offers up a different taste similar, in human terms, to the perceived difference between a Stout and a Pale Ale. By the way, Sapsuckers do occasionally get drunk on tree sap when it ferments in the hot spring sun.
It is worth mentioning one more point about this pointy-billed sap connoisseur. The scientific name of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the one that really matters in official lingo, is Sphyrapicus varius. This name, a combination of Greek & Latin, literally means “mottled pointed hammer.” Now that is a perfect name no matter how you look at it.