Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus varius

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Photo of a yellow-bellied sapsucker perched on a rock
The mottled pattern on their backs camouflages yellow-bellied sapsuckers against tree trunks.
Noppadol Paothong
Other Common Name
Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker
Family

Picidae (woodpeckers) in the order Piciformes

Description

Adults with head and upperparts black and white with a red crown. White band on the middle part of the wing and a white rump. Male has a red throat; female has a white throat. Underparts whitish with a yellow wash on the belly. Juvenile has a brownish head, neck, and throat. Voice a variety of squealing calls, often not loud: a descending churrmews, and weep-weep. A irregular tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap drumming pattern, like Morse Code, is characteristic.

Similar species: In Missouri, the two most common woodpeckers with which it might be confused are the downy and hairy woodpeckers. Though also rather small, they both have a black crown, solid white undersides, and small white spots on their wings instead of a broad white band.

Size

Length: 8½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of a male yellow-bellied sapsucker
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Male)
Although sapsuckers defend their sap wells, several other animals take advantage of the sap pooled in the holes.

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Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Bird perched on a tree trunk. The bird has a red crest and throat, and its belly has a yellow tint to it.
Yellow-bellied sapsucker perched on a tree trunk in Piedmont, MO
Habitat and conservation

The yellow-bellied sapsucker forages on trees in forests, orchards, and parks. The mottled pattern on their backs helps them blend in with the tree trunks upon which they perch, including the wet, darkened portions of bark. Because of the damage they can inflict on trees and their habit of eating fruit, they were formerly viewed as “injurious” and shot. They are protected today, and few view them as pests. Populations appear to be stable.

Foods

Forages on trees for insects, fruits, nuts, and berries. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are woodpeckers that drill small, often evenly and closely spaced holes in trees in order to extract the sweet sap. In the process of drilling, sapsuckers eat the inner bark, drink the sap, and catch insects such as ants that are attracted to the sap.

image of Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Uncommon migrant; uncommon (south) and rare (north) winter resident. Rare in winter south of the Missouri River, and usually absent in northern Missouri. In the past, it was probably a rare breeder along the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.

Life cycle

This is the most migratory woodpecker in eastern North America, with the breeding range in Canada, the Great Lakes, and New England, and wintering range extending as far south as Panama. Missouri is at the northern limit of the wintering range. Like other woodpeckers, they are cavity nesters. There are 4-6 eggs per clutch, and incubation lasts 10-13 days. Young fledge after 25-30 days.

Human connections

When sapsuckers drill too many holes in any one tree, they can girdle it, cutting off the flow of sap to the branches, possibly killing the tree. This is more of a problem in northern states, but when it happens in orchards and other trees important to humans, it can be a problem.

Ecosystem connections

Although sapsuckers defend their sap wells, several other animals, such as squirrels, other birds, and insects, take advantage of the sap pooled in the holes. Hummingbirds may find their first meals of the season at sapsucker holes, which are usually available before flower nectar.