A widespread, medium-sized woodpecker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) gains its unusual name from its yellowish to creamy-white belly and its habit of drilling holes in the bark of trees, to feed on their sap. (2) (4). It is a colourful and attractive bird, with a bright red throat and crown, bordered with black, and a black stripe on the face, which is bordered by two white stripes that join at the back of the neck. The back and tail are irregularly barred in black and white, the rump is white, and there is a black ‘bib’ on the upper breast, with narrow blackish marks along the breast sides. The yellow-bellied sapsucker has largely black wings, with a white stripe along the edge and greyish and white barring on the underwing (2) (3) (4).
The female yellow-bellied sapsucker is similar in appearance to the male, but can be distinguished by a white rather than red throat. The female’s crown may also be paler red, sometimes mixed with black. Juveniles differ in having mainly dark brownish rather than black markings, with blackish bars and mottling on the upperparts, a whitish throat, and more subdued head markings. Young males may have some red on the throat (2) (3) (4). The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a straight, chisel-tipped, slate-grey to black bill, and bluish-grey legs and feet (3) (4).
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers from the southern Appalachian Mountains have sometimes been considered a separate subspecies, Sphyrapicus varius appalachiensis, on the basis of their darker plumage and smaller size. However, this subspecies is not generally recognised (3) (4). The male yellow-bellied sapsucker is very similar in appearance to the closely related red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), but the latter is distinguished by a red patch on the back of the neck and less white on the back (2) (3) (4). The male red-naped sapsucker also lacks a complete black border between the red throat and white cheek, while the female has a white chin in addition to a red throat (2) (4). Where their ranges overlap, the two species sometimes hybridise (2) (3) (4).
The most common calls of the yellow-bellied sapsucker include a nasal, mewing ‘me-ah’ or ‘neaaah’, an ‘owee-owee’ and ‘wee-wee-wee-wee’, and an aggressive ‘weetick-weetick’ and ‘juk-juk-juk’. Like other woodpeckers, it also communicates by drumming the bill against a tree, stump, or a man-made structure such as a telephone pole or street sign. The drumming of this species is quite distinctive, consisting of a slow, irregular tapping with well-separated taps at the end (2) (3) (4).
- Also known as
- common sapsucker.
- Picus varius.
- Length: 18 - 22 cm (2)
- Wingspan: 34 - 40 cm (2)
- 41 - 62 g (3)
Yellow-bellied sapsucker biology
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is best known for its habit of feeding on tree sap, which it obtains by drilling an elaborate system of holes (‘sap wells’) in bark and licking up the sap that flows into them. These wells are usually arranged in vertical columns or horizontal bands, and may be deep, rounded holes, or shallower, rectangular holes which the sapsucker must maintain continuously for the sap to continue to flow. The sapsucker may also feed on the living tissues beneath the bark (2) (3) (4). Most new holes are drilled above old ones, or above old wounds on the tree (4) (7). The yellow-bellied sapsucker takes sap from a range of tree species, using both deciduous and coniferous trees, but tends to prefer paper birch (Betula papyrifera), red maple (Acer rubrum), juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), green alder (Alnus viridis) and bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata) (3) (6) (7).
In addition to sap, the yellow-bellied sapsucker also feeds on a variety of arthropods, including beetles, ants, flies, grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, dragonflies and spiders. Fruits, nuts, seeds and buds are also taken (2) (3) (4). Young yellow-bellied sapsuckers are usually fed on arthropods, but these may first be dipped in sap wells, possibly to add to their nutritional value (4). The yellow-bellied sapsucker usually forages alone, taking insects from the trees, descending to the ground to take ants, prying for insects under bark or dead wood, or sometimes catching prey in the air (2) (3) (4). It may hang on the outermost tips of branches to reach for buds (3) (4).
The breeding season of the yellow-bellied sapsucker runs from around April to July (3) (4). The males return to the breeding areas before the females, to establish a territory, and the male undertakes nearly all of the nest excavation, using the bill to chisel out a cavity in a tree. The nest hole may be reused from year to year (3) (4). The nest cavity is not lined, but the clutch of two to seven white eggs may be laid on a bed of wood chippings left from the cavity excavation (4). Both adults help to incubate the eggs, which hatch after 10 to 13 days. The young yellow-bellied sapsuckers leave the nest at around 23 to 29 days old, and become independent within a few weeks (3) (4). By about six weeks after leaving the nest, the young are able to drill their own sap wells in suitable trees (4). This species first breeds at around a year old (3) (4).
Yellow-bellied sapsucker range
The breeding range of the yellow-bellied sapsucker extends from Alaska, across Canada, and into the northern and eastern United States, to the east of the Rocky Mountains (2) (3) (4). The only woodpecker in eastern North America to be fully migratory (2), it travels south after the breeding season to spend the winter in the southeast USA, Central America and the Caribbean. It has been recorded as far south as Panama (2) (3) (4) (5). Female yellow-bellied sapsuckers tend to migrate further than males (2) (3) (4).
Yellow-bellied sapsucker habitat
During the breeding season, the yellow-bellied sapsucker inhabits both deciduous and mixed-conifer forests, particularly favouring areas with aspen (Populus), birch (Betula), maple (Acer) and hickory (Carya), at elevations up to around 2,000 metres (2) (3) (4). It is often found along streams and in relatively young forests (2) (4), although it may prefer more mature forest in some areas (6).
In winter, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is found in a variety of forest habitats, including forest edges, montane forest and open woodland (2) (3) (4). It also visits orchards, pastures, coastal palm groves and even urban areas, and occurs up to elevations of 3,500 metres (3) (4).
Yellow-bellied sapsucker status
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Yellow-bellied sapsucker threats
An abundant species with an extensive range, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is not currently considered globally threatened (5) and is not known to be facing any major threats at present (3). The yellow-bellied sapsucker is likely to have benefitted from the destruction of mature forests, which may have increased forest gaps and forest edges and so the younger areas of forest this species often prefers (2) (4). However, the yellow-bellied sapsucker does require large, older trees for nesting (3).
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the USA and Canada (4). There are no specific conservation measures currently targeted at this species, but it may benefit from further research into aspects of its behaviour and ecology outside of the breeding season, as well as into its migratory routes, population trends, and the criteria by which it selects trees for sap wells (4).
This common woodpecker is considered a ‘keystone’ species, as it plays a vital role within the communities it inhabits. Many other species make use of the sap wells created by the yellow-bellied sapsucker, feeding either directly on the sap or on insects attracted to it. Its nest cavities also provide nesting or roosting sites for a range of other birds and mammals (2) (4). The conservation of the yellow-bellied sapsucker would therefore also benefit the many other species which rely on it.
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- A very diverse phylum (a major grouping of animals) that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
- A plant that sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season.
- Cross-breeding between two different species or subspecies.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Montane forest
- Forest occurring in the montane zone, a zone of cool upland slopes below the tree line dominated by large evergreen trees.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Yellow-bellied sapsucker (March, 2011)
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2002) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 7: Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Walters, E.L., Miller, E.H. and Lowther, P.E. (2002) Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
BirdLife International (March, 2011)
Savignac, C. and Machtans, C.S. (2006) Habitat requirements of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, in boreal mixedwood forests of northwestern Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 84: 1230-1239.
Eberhardt, L.S. (2000) Use and selection of sap trees by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The Auk, 117(1): 41-51.