Dealing With Sapsucker Damage To Your Trees

Dealing With Sapsucker Damage To Your Trees
Master Gardener Scoop – January 10, 2018

Will Summers,
Master Gardener

Some birds that gather around my birdfeeders this year are woodpeckers. Some woodpeckers, known as “Sapsuckers” because they feed on tree sap are migrating through our area. I was recently disappointed to find that one of my favorite trees has been vandalized by one of these birds. This woodpecker or sapsucker left several rows of equally-sized, equally-spaced, holes drilled through the tree bark. I am concerned that this “bird-graffitti” has permanently defaced this tree. I am also concerned whether this indicates an underlying insect problem.

There is more regarding this damage, but first, consider the biology of this strange bird. All woodpeckers belong to the bird family: Picidae, of the larger order: Piciformes. Picidae is the only family of this order located in North America. They are an arboreal (tree-living), known for creeping up trees and drilling holes in search of food and excavating nesting cavities.

Red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers visit birdfeeders throughout our area. They have a taste for black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. If you are lucky, you may also see two other Piciformes, the red-headed woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker, common denizens of our forests. However, the sapsucker is only a migrant to southern Illinois. It breeds in the north and east and winters as far south as Panama.

Piciformes all deserve the title of “Good-Birds”, meaning they eat damaging insects. However, if you experience the territorial “drumming” of a young, male woodpecker in spring, or have your favorite tree permanently scarred by rows and rows of sap holes, called sapwells, you may share a reduced opinion of how beneficial this bird may be.

Rest assured that the early morning drumming sound done on your metal siding does little damage. This behavior sound welcomes the advent of springtime and is only intended to keep other suitors away from this woodpecker’s nesting territory.

Secondly, the rows and rows of sap holes usually cause no permanent damage to trees. Sapsuckers may drill into more than a thousand different species of trees; however they favor birches and maples or other thin-barked trees. Yes, sapsuckers do suck sap from these sapwells but also consume the tissue as well. Sapwells also represent traps for insects and other invertebrates that may wander into them. Tree sap represents a valuable source of nutrients in the early spring when there is a scarcity of other food sources. Many other birds, including hummingbirds, frequent these marks for food. In Canada, even porcupines and foxes use the sapwells for food. In the spring, sapsuckers drill holes deep into the xylem to get sap moving up the tree to the branches. Later in the year, shallower, square holes are drilled into the phloem to gain sugary sap. In both cases, the birds also eat the vascular tissue and any insects they encounter.

Sapsuckers return to their work to keep holes open.

All of this is possible using the sapsucker’s sticky, long, barbed tongue. Its tongue is five inches long, many times longer in proportion to any other bird, even the little hummingbird. The sapsuckers’ tongues coil from behind, around and below the right eye to extend beyond the chisel-shaped beak.

The remarkable ability of all woodpeckers to hammer results from a combination of a flexible bill, the beaks muscular attachment to the skull and extra space inside the woodpecker’s skull for folds to its brain that creates its own padding. Next, nearly all woodpeckers have stout tail feathers that give it leverage to strengthen the bird upper torso against the tree. Additionally, special hairs protect the bird’s nostrils against wood fibers or other damage.

According to the University of Illinois technical manual for Master Gardeners, sapsucker drilling is mainly cosmetic and not damaging to trees. If concerned, homeowners may tie burlap around the area to discourage these birds. You may also use predator decoys such as owls or snakes, or use acoustics such as recorded sounds.

Please take the opportunity to teach children to identify these truly unique bird species and enjoy all native birds in southern Illinois.

The sapsuckers and all woodpeckers play an important part in our natural habitat.

Learn more about birds by participating in some of the local organizations bird counts.

For more information or for any gardening questions, please contact your nearest University of Illinois Master Gardener or your local U of I Extension Service office.