The Percussion of Your Local Woodpecker

Yellow-barried sapsucker woodpecker Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

The Percussion of Your Local Woodpecker

Have you ever hiked through the woods or neighborhood and discovered a tree with small holes running in rows across its trunk? If you have, you found the handiwork of Sphyrapicus varius, a type of woodpecker commonly known as the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Looking like a disheveled Hairy or Downy woodpecker, the sapsucker is distinguished from them by its white wing patch, red forehead, and yellowish belly.  Male sapsuckers also have a red throat. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the only completely migratory woodpecker in eastern North America. Migrating from Canada to Central America (and vice versa) it calls Cincinnati home during winter.

This extraordinary bird gets its name because it bores holes, or sap wells, in the inner bark of trees. Once the sap oozes and runs down the trunk, it licks up the sap with its brush-like tongue. Unlike other woodpeckers that drill for insects, sapsuckers eat the insects that are attracted to the sap, at times dipping the insects in sap before consuming or feeding their young.

Sapsuckers are known to feed on as many as 1,000 different species of trees, however, they show a preference for certain species in a given area. In Cincinnati, one of their favorites is the Sugar maple.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is considered a keystone species. A host of animals use their nesting cavities as homes and take advantage of the sapsucker’s wells and the insects attracted to them. Porcupine, bats, squirrels, butterflies, chipmunks and other birds are some of the animals that eat sap made available by sapsuckers. Ruby-throated hummingbirds time their migration to parts of Canada to the arrival of sapsuckers. They have been seen following sapsuckers from tree to tree and nesting near its sap wells.

The next time you are out in the woods this winter, keep an eye out for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or its signature holes on a tree. Video credit to: Richard Payne, of yellow-bellied sapsucker at Cincinnati Parks Magrish Riverland Preserve


Gia Giammarinaro, Explore Nature! Naturalist, and Bob discuss another amazing woodpecker, the Acorn Woodpecker. If you live or travel to the west make sure you check this woodpecker out. This podcast episode is part of our Keystone Species series.

Written by: Theresa Cohen, Cincinnati Parks Part-time Naturalist at California Woods 

About Author: Theresa Cohen is a part-time Naturalist at California Woods Nature Preserve. She has been an educator for 25 years and with the Cincinnati Parks for 2 years. She has a Master’s in Early Childhood Education from the University of Cincinnati and is certified as an Ohio Volunteer Naturalist and Interpretive Guide. She developed her love for nature playing in the woods near her home as a child. She loves to cook and enjoys tending to her garden and backyard apiary.


Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash