An early Christmas present

  • This side view of a juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker shows the yellow belly feathers for which the species is named. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This dorsal view of the sapsucker shows what wonderful camouflage the young bird's feathers can provide. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

Published: 12/9/2019 8:00:18 PM

Anyone who self-identifies as a “birder” will understand that this particular compulsion is all about time. The more time you spend birding, the more birds you will see. For those of us who are hopelessly addicted to this calling, time can be measured in hours, days and even weeks. I am a bird addict and I speak from experience.

Over Thanksgiving break, for example, I logged three to five hours of birding per day. It was during this time that I established a list of “regulars” at my feeders. Day after day, the same 14 species arrived for free food, with the only difference being the order of their appearance. Furthermore, I was able to establish a fairly decent count of individuals within a certain species. I now have a fairly good idea of which species are here and how many of each species have breakfast at the “Danielson diner.”

Then, as any birder will tell you, there are what I call the “X-factor” species. These are birds that just don’t make any sense. Loyal readers of my column may remember a gray catbird that spent the winter at my feeders a few years ago. This bird, who I named “Linus,” was the epitome of X-factor birds and may be the reason that breaking records for those months will be so difficult in the future.

Well folks, it has happened again. Home and sick, with nothing else to do but sit and feel like death warmed over, I decided to park myself at my kitchen window and watch the regulars do their stuff. I was there for a couple of hours and had even momentarily lost interest in the birds and been writing odds and ends in my journal, when I looked up and found myself looking at a remarkable sight. A large woodpecker, with many feathers the same shade of brown as peanut shells, was sitting on the peanut feeder.

My first guess was that I was looking at a northern flicker; a species that is uncommon, but not exactly unusual at my winter feeders. By as my eyes scanned for field marks, I quickly realized that this was not a flicker at all. Instead, I found myself looking at a juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius); a bird that really had no business being there at all.

Sapsuckers don’t really visit birdfeeders as a general rule. Instead, they make a living by drilling parallel rows of small, shallow holes in the bark of certain trees (birches and maples are among their favorites) in the hope of collecting sugar-laden sap. In the springtime, they drill deeper holes that target the xylem tubes that send sugary sap up to the leaves. Humans do the same thing when they collect sap to make maple syrup. Then, when the leaves have been deployed to full size, the sapsuckers use shallower holes to target the phloem tubes that are sending sugars from the leaves down to the roots.

Sapsuckers have specialized tongues with “brushes” at the tips to collect this sap. Think of the brushes used to apply mascara to eyelashes and you’ve got a crude, but not an altogether inaccurate model. In addition to the sugars that they so crave, sapsuckers will also eat insects that get caught in the little pockets of sap. I should also mention here that ruby-throated hummingbirds are regular visitors to sapsucker trees; looking for any sugary droplets they can steal while the owners are elsewhere.

In winter, the sap stops flowing. Thus, the sapsucker is generally out of food if it stays too far north. The normal northern limit of the sapsucker’s winter range extends from southern New Jersey west to the majority of Kansas. The only exception is a long finger of territory made inhospitable to winter sapsuckers by the elevation of the Appalachian Mountains. The range extends all the way south to Central America, but this far north the sapsucker is definitely in a bit of danger.  

If it lives through the winter, the bird I saw will change its juvenile browns for a dramatic costume of black-and-white feathers. In keeping with woodpecker tradition, there is a bit of red thrown in for dramatic effect. But here, the sapsucker differs from the downy and hairy woodpeckers we may be more familiar with. Adult male sapsuckers have a red forehead and a red throat, while the adult females have only the red forehead. Based on this description, I feel somewhat justified in identifying the juvenile that I saw as a young female.

So keep your eyes open. You may establish your own crowd of “regulars,” but you never know when the X-factor species will appear. The sapsucker that I saw was only there for about two minutes and I haven’t seen it since. Northern shrikes, sharp-shinned hawks and white-crowned sparrows are similar in their brief appearances and the only way to see them is to happen to look outside while they are there. Otherwise, they live a “secret” life right under our very noses.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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