NC State Extension Publications

Description and Biology

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The yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, is the only member of the woodpecker family that pecks series of horizontal ¼ inch holes in the bark of trees. These birds have a black crescent on the breast, pale yellow belly, white wing stripe, and a crimson crown. Males have crimson chins and throats; females have white chins and throats. Although insects make up part of its diet, the sapsucker is better known for its pecking of numerous holes in the bark of live trees to sip sap using its brush-like tongue. Sapsuckers in search of nesting sites are especially attracted to trees infected with heart rot fungi, which decays the heartwood and enables the birds to excavate a nest hole. In early spring sapsuckers may test many trees around its selected nesting site by pecking sample holes before selecting ones it prefers. These trees, because of quantity or sugar content of the sap, are visited several times a day for the rest of the season and are sometimes are used as a food source for several years.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are our only birds that peck holes in bark for food.

Host Plants

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More than 250 species of woody plants are known to be attacked. Pecan, maple, and hemlock are preferred species although Scots pine, elm, and apple are readily used as well. The sapsucker pecks neat rows of 1/4-inch holes spaced closely together through the bark of trees along and around portions of the limbs or trunk. The holes are periodically enlarged and portions of the cambium and inner bark, together with the fresh sap, are eaten. Puncture wounds and resulting sap flow on branches and trunks of trees are the most obvious symptoms of injury inflicted by the sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers often return to the same tree year after year.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers peck

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers peck 1/4 inch holes through the bark.

Residential Recommendations

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To discourage sapsuckers from feeding on a favorite shade tree, wrap hardware cloth or burlap around the area being attacked. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Federal regulations prohibit shooting of sapsuckers. Although tempting, shooting yellow-bellied sapsuckers would only provide temporary relief anyway as transient birds would soon replace the dead birds.


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Publication date: June 8, 2016
Revised: Oct. 28, 2019

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