Beak of the Week – Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Family: Picidae

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a member of the woodpecker family that winters in the southeastern United States. Similar to other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has white vertical wing patches, an unbroken white stripe from the bill to the belly, and a stout beak. Adult males have a red crown, white throat, and a white belly. Females also have a red crown however, they differ from males with their white throat and pale yellow belly. Juveniles are more of a  brownish color with a spotted crown. Their call is a high pitched and nasal sounding “neeeeah.” You may also hear five or so rapid taps followed by a slower double tap as they bore into tree trunks. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers winter primarily in deciduous forests. During the spring and summer, they often take advantage of edge habitats that are formed by some type of disturbance such as a timber harvest. They utilize the trees within the forest not only for shelter but also as a food source. The sapsuckers drill small holes in a neat pattern to create a horizontal line. They frequently return to these holes in order to feed on the sap that oozes out. The species is also known to feed on a variety of small insects, different parts of tree tissue such as the cambium and phloem, as well as fruits and berries. 

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker also uses the forest to nest. Both males and females will excavate holes in living trees including aspen, birch, maple, beech, and elm. They make the excavation process a bit easier on themselves by choosing trees that have softer wood due to some type of fungus or decay. The sapsuckers will often return to previously used trees year after year. Eggs are then laid on the wood chips that remain in the cavity. 

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker will most likely only be seen in Texas in the winter so if you want to see one, come on out to any of Houston Audubon’s forested bird sanctuaries!

Greg Lavaty
Greg Lavaty

Anthony Rathbun

Our Beak of the Week is one of 12 birds featured in Confluence, a public art installation along the Bayou Greenway trail at the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo Bayous. The 223-foot mural, created by artist Jane Kim, founder of Ink Dwell Studio, showcases the birds that call Houston’s bayous home. Confluence is commissioned by Houston Parks Board and hosted in collaboration with Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Houston Audubon is pleased to provide ornithological expertise and collaborate on programming and promotion of the mural. Learn more about Confluence here. 

 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

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