How to ID these unique woodpeckers by their elaborate sap gardens and the stuttering cadence of pecks

Sapsuckers — a specialized type of woodpecker — have some unique characteristics including that they drill precise rows of holes to ensure a steady flow of the sweet stuff, have strange, hairy tongues and peck in a distinctive stuttering cadence, says naturalist Brian Keating.

The reason the woodpeckers can keep the sap flowing is they tap into a tree’s natural response to bleed sap whenever its bark is punctured — it’s a way to seal off the hole to prevent pathogens and infection from entering the wound.

As naturalist Brian Keating told The Homestretch, sapsuckers are essentially sap farmers.

“They feed at what’s known as sap wells, which are the neat rows of shallow holes that they drill in tree bark,” Keating said. “They’re neatly organized rows. It looks like an engineer had gone in and laid out the process.”

A female yellow-bellied sapsucker tends to her sapwell, which is a system of drilled holes. The sapsucker feeds off the bleeding sap. (Brian Keating)

There are four species of sapsuckers in Canada, all of which are a type of woodpecker. But they are a very specialized woodpecker because they have some unique characteristics, Keating said, not the least of which is the way they consume the sap.

“They don’t really suck it, they’ve got a tongue that has a weird series of hairs at the tip of the tongue. So they lap it,” he said. “It’s almost like the tongue has a brush on the tip.”

The other ways to distinguish sapsuckers are their appearance and their signature pecking sound. Their drumming is slower and more irregular than other woodpeckers, including the most common here in Alberta, the flicker.

“It’s kind of a stuttering cadence, it’s like somebody tapping [out] Morse code.”

Like flickers, the sapsuckers will also sit atop a chimney top and tap out its distinct pattern against the metal.

In appearance, sapsuckers are mostly black and white with bold patterns on their faces, Keating said. They have a red forehead — males will also have a red throat and females have a whitish throat. They’re a bit bigger than a Downy woodpecker.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is also a songbird. (Brian Keating)

In some cases, these elaborate rows of holes can do serious damage to trees, Keating said, adding that up to 50 or 60 per cent of the trees can eventually succumb to the wounds that sapsuckers create.

“They seem to choose sick or wounded trees for the drilling,” he said. “But they like to choose trees that have high sugar concentrations, saps like paper and yellow birch and sugar and red maple and hickory.”

Keating said sapsuckers also seem to prefer fast-growing trees in young forests and areas regenerating from a timber harvest.

Sapsuckers are fully migratory, travelling as far south as Panama.

“Just like the people who tap maple trees to get maple syrup, these birds initially drill their wells when they come up in the spring,” he said. “And in some parts of Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds rely so much on the sap wells because they feed on that sap, which can have up to 10 per cent sugar in the spring.”

The red throat indicates this is a male, yellow-bellied sapsucker. (Brian Keating)

Keating said other birds, especially hummingbirds, as well as porcupines and bats, are also known to feed at the sap wells.

The wells are drilled neatly and methodically, Keating said. In spring, the holes are narrow and deep, going all the way to the inner part of the trunk, to get to the sap as it moves upward toward the leaves.

After the tree is leafy, the sapsucker drills more shallow, rectangular holes. In this way, the woodpecker can feed on both sap and also any insects that may be found under the bark, Keating said. 


For more fascinating stories about Alberta’s wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:


With files from The Homestretch and Pamela Fieber

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