Bird of the Week: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Sphyrapicus varius

Written and compiled by Lindsey Hernandez
Sources: Texas Parks and Wildlife, All About Birds, Travis Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, Ovid’s Metamorphoses

A common woodpecker on the smaller side, averaging 8 ½ inches in length. It drills horizontal rows of small holes in live trees. The Yellow-bellied sapsucker will start to be seen in central Texas during October and through the winter months. While wintering in central Texas, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is relatively quiet. These woodpeckers are completely migratory, and they will migrate south as far as Panama in the winter.

This sapsucker can be found in yards, parks, woods, and gardens during winter and fall. Both sexes have a stout black bill with vertical white wing patches. Males have a red crown and throat. Females have a red crown with a white throat. The underbelly varies from white to pale yellow.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker leaves behind rows of tiny holes in trees’ bark, at times looking like a grid or a scantron sheet. The round holes are made by the sapsucker to harvest sap. The rectangular holes are shallow and are made to keep the sap flowing. The sapsucker as well as other birds and insects will feed at these sap wells. The bird licks up leaking sap as well as cambium from trees and any trapped insects using its brush-tipped tongue. It will also eat fruits and berries. At times, these sapsuckers can also be seen perched at the edge of a branch where it will launch off and chase after flying insects.

During mating season, it will become much noisier making cat-like calls and using its strong bill for staccato drumming. The male will even drum with its beak on metal street signs and chimneys to make its territory known. The beak seems to be unharmed by this behavior.

Unlike most woodpecker species, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers don’t rely on dead trees for feeding but they do search for trees with dead limbs in which to make their cavity nests. The nest sites are most commonly picked out by the males and may be reused for several breeding seasons, up to seven years. The males do most of the work excavating the nest site in the tree, making an entrance hole averaging 1 ½ inches in diameter with an inside hole around 10 inches deep. The clutch of 4-6 eggs are laid on wood chips left over from pecking the next.

The etymology of this sapsucker’s name goes back to 1858 when the American naturalist Spencer Baird named the bird Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or Sphyrapicus varius. The genus Sphyrapicus conbines the ancient Greek sphura meaning “hammer”  and picus,  a genus of woodpecker first categorized by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. By the time of Linnaeus, picus was the name already attached to the woodpecker.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses,  Picus, an ancient deity of agriculture, rejects the love of the goddess and witch Circe. As a punishment for this rejection, Circe turns Picus into a woodpecker: “He saw wings appear on his body…The feathers of his crown and nape took on the colour of his crimson cloak, and what had been a golden brooch, pinning his clothes, became plumage …
Angered at his sudden transformation to a strange bird… he pecked at the rough oak wood with his hard beak and in fury wounded the long branches.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain