Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in North Carolina

August 26, 2022

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Photographer: Patti Weeks  

Summary Author: Patti Weeks  

The Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) is “one of the most migratory of woodpeckers,” as stated on the website. Thus, this male sapsucker, whose photo I took February 3, 2022, on a sugar maple tree in an eastern North Carolina arboretum, departed this spring for a breeding ground somewhere in the northeastern United States, eastern Alaska or Canada. The range of this sapsucker’s breeding territory has edged even further northward however, due to global warming. The Yellow-bellied sapsucker’s winter territory includes the southern and southeastern United States, Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. Territories of the other sapsuckers (Red-napped, Red-breasted and Williamson’s) are further west in the U.S. and Canada.

The sapsucker perches vertically on the tree trunk, propping itself with its tail, and drills holes in neat rows (as seen in the second photo on a pecan tree.) It returns to the “sapwells” to consume the sap as it oozes (inset is a close-up photo of oozing sapwells on a sugar maple). The moniker ‘sapsucker’ is misleading, as the bird actually sips the sap with hairlike structures on its tongue. Up to 1,000 trees and woody plants have been identified as food sources for Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but they prefer maple and birch trees. They also feed on insects, fruit, berries and nuts. Sapsuckers are considered a “keystone” species, providing a crucial role in the health of their surrounding ecological community. Many other organisms are drawn to the sap, including bees, wasps, butterflies, squirrels, bats and other types of birds, particularly hummingbirds. In some areas, as many as 35 bird species have been reported to feed on the sap and the insects it attracts. 


The elevation of the Yellow-bellied sapsucker’s range can vary from 10,000 ft. (3200 meters) to sea level. The Pitt County Arboretum here in Greenville, North Carolina is 56 ft (17 m) above sea level. Perhaps I will see this fella again, when it returns here to its wintering territory.


Pitt County Arboretum, Greenville, North Carolina Coordinates: 35.6396, -77.3606

Frozen Sap of a Yellow Birch Tree

Harvesting Maple Syrup