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WELL DIGGERS (i.e. Sapsuckers)

Bayou-Diversity (20 July 2019) Not unlike humans, birds have evolved various strategies to make a living. Some are fishermen, others hunters; some travel thousands of miles within a year to survive, others work from home. Some forage widely across the landscape, others have more focused feeding habits. One small group of birds with behavior that falls in the specialized category consists of sapsuckers. They are the well diggers of the bird world.

Four species of sapsuckers are found in the U.S., but only one type of these small woodpeckers visits Louisiana. The yellow-bellied sapsucker spends the winter with us but departs in early spring to breed in northern states and Canada. When perched on the side of a tree they appear dark with a diagnostic, vertical white stripe on the folded wing. Males have a red crown and throat. Females have a red crown and white throat. Both have black and white face stripes.

Unlike most woodpeckers that rely on dead or dying trees, sapsuckers excavate small wells in the trunks and branches of living trees in order to feed on the sap that leaks out and the insects that are trapped in the sticky resin. They make two types of holes: deep round ones from which they collect sap with their specialized, brush-tipped tongue, and shallow rectangular ones that are maintained for a continuous sap flow. The holes are often bored in characteristic horizontal rows one above the other.

Their wells also benefit many other animals that feed on the sap and trapped insects including at least 35 species of birds such as yellow-rumped warblers, eastern phoebes, ruby-crowned kinglets, nuthatches, and chickadees. Research in Canada has shown that ruby-throated hummingbirds are very dependent on the wells when they first arrive in spring, as the nutritious sap can be more than ten percent sugar. The wells likewise nourish squirrels, bats, and many types of beneficial insects. Although some ornamental shrubs can be damaged by sapsuckers, most healthy native trees are none the worse for the wear. Consider that it is not in the best, long-term interest of sapsuckers to kill their host trees. They would soon be out of a job.

(photo credit: Linda Huffman)


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