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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

The bird that won’t leave my oak alone

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/19/24

I have a love/hate relationship with a yellow-bellied sapsucker. It’s complicated, I know, and it has a long history. For years, a sapsucker has been attracted to the two most coveted trees in …

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The bird that won’t leave my oak alone


I have a love/hate relationship with a yellow-bellied sapsucker. It’s complicated, I know, and it has a long history.
For years, a sapsucker has been attracted to the two most coveted trees in my yard, both bur oaks that I grew from acorns harvested from a massive tree in the yard where I grew up near the Minnesota River in Bloomington.
The terrain here in the North Country is hardly ideal for bur oaks. The soil is shallow, although it’s at least several feet to bedrock where the two trees are located. But we’re outside their normal range and while the trees have survived and are growing reasonably well, there are signs they’re struggling a bit at times.
While sapsuckers rarely kill trees, they have been known to weaken them and they tend to be attracted to trees that are already stressed. And the ones that show up here every year, to nest in a cavity in a large aspen just north of the house, have decided these are their favorite honey pots.
Sapsuckers, as their name suggests, really do eat sap. They don’t suck it, but they do lap it up with their brush-like tongues and sap comprises a significant amount of their diet. To access the sap, they drill small holes of varying depths. In the spring, the holes are a bit deeper and act just like a maple tap we humans use for the same purpose as they gather the sap moving up from underground that will eventually bring the tree out of winter dormancy. This time of year, sap is mostly flowing downward, storing food produced by the leavesin the roots. That sap flows closer to the surface so the holes produced by sapsuckers this time of year tend to be quite shallow.
Generally, the trees are able to block the flow of the sap fairly quickly, which is one reason that sapsuckers tend to drill a lot of holes in trees they favor. Typically, in our area, they focus on birch and maple, but they’ve also taken a liking to my two bur oaks. One of them seems to have been unaffected by the daily attention from the sapsuckers. But the other regularly shows more dead branches than I would expect on a completely healthy tree.
When the less healthy tree was smaller, I would wrap the trunk in window screen in the spring to discourage the sapsuckers and it seemed like the tree’s health improved. As the tree is now much larger, I’ve stopped wrapping it because it would just be too difficult to do.
I’ve occasionally discouraged the sapsuckers by shooing them away if I happen to see them. I realize that’s largely ineffectual since I’m often not around. And they’ve largely stopped reacting, other than simply moving to the opposite side of the tree, and occasionally peak around to see what I’m doing.
So, I’ve just let it go. I know some folks might have dispatched sapsuckers, but I’m definitely not going that route. I’ll tend the trees as best I can and hope for the best, while reminding myself that yellow-bellied sapsuckers are an interesting species of woodpecker, one that’s only around half the year. In large part because sapsuckers need their trees to be outside of dormancy, they don’t spend the winters here in the north. In fact, they are the only group of woodpeckers that are migratory. They show up here, typically, in mid-April, and head south in the fall, generally in late September as the trees stop photosynthesizing. They spend the winters in the far southern U.S., Mexico, and even as far south as Central America.
Once back on their breeding territory, the male sapsucker does most of the work excavating the cavity, which is often in an aspen in our region. Many aspen experience heart rot and sapsuckers key in on those trees since it makes the work of excavating a cavity that much easier. Once carved, the pair will tend to return to the same nest for the rest of their lives, and that could be several years. The pair near our house have been coming for at least the past four years.
While the male and female of the species do look quite similar, the male has a scarlet throat in addition to a red forehead, while the female’s throat is a pale yellow. As birds go, they’re pretty colorful. Even so, I’ll be happy to see them move on.