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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Cole’s March Bird of the Month

Photo by Beth Willis

What’s yellow, red, black, and white, loves to drink from trees, and sounds like a cat? Yes, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, of course. This rather small woodpecker can be seen flying from tree to tree and to your feeder, if you serve suet cakes. Its distinctive, bold black and white patterned jacket blends beautifully with its yellow vest and bright red hat with matching neck scarf.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can easily be distinguished from other woodpeckers by their soft yellow or tan breast and belly. The males and females look very similar, except she has a white chin rather than a red one. The juveniles are similar to the females, but they are more of a dull brown than rich black, and they sport no striking red markings.

Like other woodpeckers, the Yellow-belly has a distinctive undulating flight. Unlike its fellow woodpeckers, the sapsucker has an irregular drumming rhythm and very few vocalizations – the only one of note being a cat-like meow sound.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers may have gotten their names from their habit of drinking sap from trees. They drill holes in a pattern of horizontal rows in small to medium sized trees and once the sap starts oozing, they lap it up. It is a fortunate coincidence that bugs also find the sugary sapwells delicious. You can be sure the sapsucker enjoys every bit of that extra protein along with his sweet drink.

The sapwells are attractive to porcupines, bats, and other birds as well. The hummers enjoy the sugary treat so much that, in parts of Canada, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their spring migration with the arrival of sapsuckers.

Elaine Cole keeps them hanging around her own backyard during the winter with a tasty blend of Cole’s Suet Kibbles™ mixed with Cole’s Dried Mealworms. “I also find that the Yellow-bellied sapsuckers love our Hot Meats™ Suet Cakes which I feed out of a homemade suet log feeder, though regular suet cages work just as well,” she advises.

In early spring, before mating, sapsucker pairs have a playful pre-courtship behavior. One sapsucker chases the other around tree trunks and branches. Courting birds will land on a tree and face each other. They raise their bills and tails while they stand with their throat feathers fluffed out and crest feathers raised then swing their heads from side to side. Ironically, while they use this dance as a courtship, it’s the same behavior used between competing males when aggressively facing off over a desirable female.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers build cavities for their nest. They have just one brood during mating season. The male usually excavates the nest in a tree that’s infected with a fungus, which causes the tree’s heartwood or sapwood to decay, making excavation easier.  The male and female stay together to raise the young and may reunite during the next mating season.

During the summer, you can find Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers from Alaska to Maine. During the winter, they migrate through the southern United States going as far south as Central America.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are beautiful, striking birds that are fun to watch and entertaining to listen to. Their courtship, their meow-like calls, and their drumming on metal make them a true pleasure for any backyard birder.


Below is a video showing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker enjoying a delicious treat.

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Cole’s Wild Bird Products is a family-owned company that distributes wild bird feed and suet products. The company is known for offering the highest quality products on the market. Cole’s also specializes in chile infused seed products designed to make your feeder a bird’s only “hot” spot. Cole’s started in the garage of mom and pop entrepreneurs Richard and Nancy Cole back in the early 1980’s. Today it distributes to retailers nationwide. Cole’s is located in the metro Atlanta area. For more information, visit www.ColesWildBird.com.