A Wintering Woodpecker

There are seven species of woodpeckers that are year-long residents in Florida. 

  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker

But there is one particular woodpecker that takes a break from the snow-covered trees in the northern states and travels south to Florida’s calmer winters.

Have you ever come across a tree with rows of circular holes on the trunk?  Well, that was created by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

These are such beautiful woodpeckers with unique feather and color patterns.  The downy and hairy woodpeckers have a similar black-feathered mark that sweeps across its eye. However, to tell if it’s a sapsucker, the crown of their heads are red. Males have a red feathered throats as seen in the photo above and the females have white feathered throats.

They are mostly solitary birds and stay true to their natural habitat. Yellow-bellied sapsucker forages in Florida’s bottomland hardwood forests collecting insects, fruit, berries and sap. 

Bottomland hardwood forests consist of seasonal wet areas that flood during the rainy season, but the area soil is moist, holding little to no water during the fall and winter. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers prefers this type of habitat in which many trees like oaks, pines, maple, cedar, cypress, and other deciduous trees thrive.

 Deciduous trees: sheds their leaves annually.

Although they do eat insects and fruit, their main diet consists of tree sap. Sapsuckers tap circular holes just deep enough to tap into the sap layer. It’s a similar process when people tap trees to collect resin from pine trees for turpentine or collect sap from maple trees for syrup. 

Deciduous trees produce sap. The sap is more watery than resin, which is thick and slightly amber in color. Coniferous or evergreen trees like pine produces a mixture of sap and resin.

Speaking of layers, let’s talk about the layers of trees. This will give you a general idea of how deep yellow-bellied sapsuckers drill to collect sap.

A tree consists of layers. You have the outer bark, inner bark (phloem), cambium- a thin layer of cellular plant tissue, and the sapwood (xylem) layer. The yellow-bellied sapsucker will drill until it reaches the phloem layer and cambium layer from trees that do not have a thick outer bark.

The xylem and the phloem layers of a tree are its vascular tissues and transports water, sugars, and other essential substances around a plant. The tree’s sap is being transported around the tree via the xylem and phloem layers. When the woodpecker reaches the phloem layer the sap will begin to flow out. The yellow-bellied sapsucker will also consume cambium.

Sap seeping from a live pine tree. photo courtesy of Bryan Ames Area Wildlife Biologist
Sap seeping from a live pine tree. Photo courtesy of Bryan Ames- Area Wildlife Biologist

Where I photographed this woodpecker the area consisted of cypress, sweetgum, and pine. However, a few young pines, dahoon hollies, and American sweetgum showed signs of recent and previous sapwells.

Field studies conducted determined the foods and foraging behavior of a yellow-bellied sapsucker showed it used several types of drilling methods to extract sap and phloem tissue from living trees: vertical columns , horizontal bands, and spiral.

METHODS AND ANNUAL SEQUENCE OF FORAGING BY THE SAPSUCKER (unm.edu)

It is uncertain if this or any other yellow-bellied sapsuckers return to the same area every year, and if so, I found where to monitor one.

The sap seeping out of these sapwells is not only consumed by the Yellow-bellied sapsucker; bats and other wildlife also take advantage of their sapwells.

Towards the end of October, these birds will begin to appear in Florida, and around May-June will begin their travels back up to the northern states to breed, leaving behind only circled holes drilled around the trunk of the trees.

These woodpeckers are quite impressive once you learn more about them. If you do happen to see a yellow-bellied sapsucker, I encourage observing these winter residents doing what they do to survive in the wild. 

More information about Yellow-bellied Woodpeckers:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Life History, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker | Audubon Field Guide


I am that kind of writer who has to be in that environment to write about it. Because I am not in an outdoor environment every day and focusing on only one subject, it can be challenging and hard to grasp some terminology, but I do my best to share what I learned. It is really neat when you can learn more, nature is truly inspiring.

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