Sappsucker Damage to Trees

Have you ever noticed fairly large, evenly spaced holes on the trunk of your tree? These are not the holes of some super strain of insect; instead, they are the handiwork of the yellow bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius,) a bird in the woodpecker family. The yellow bellied sapsucker is a medium-sized migratory bird that overwinters in Central America, and the South, spending its summer in the Mid Atlantic, northward to Canada. The sapsucker makes test holes in a tree to taste the sap and eat pieces of the cambium. If the sap is sweet enough, the bird will continue feeding on the tree or shrub throughout the summer. Sapsuckers are the only woodpecker to feed on tree sap; the other woodpeckers hammer on trees, searching for insects that might be found inside. The sapsucker will also feed on insects, should they encounter one.

Credit: - Andy Morffew

Sapsuckers feed on nearly 250 species of trees. Some of their favorite trees found in our area include pines, hickories, tulip poplar, red maple, birch, and spruce. The holes that the sapsucker make are fairly shallow, and they rarely kill a tree unless they happen to complexly girdle a small tree. Red maples have the highest mortality from sapsucker damage, at 40%, while other trees, such as hemlock, have relatively minor sapsucker mortality, at less than 1%. The smaller the tree, the more vulnerable it is to being girdled and killed by the sapsucker. Although the bird rarely kills trees, the holes it makes can serve as passageways for fungi or bacteria that can stain or cause rot in the wood. This damage is more worrisome in forestry applications where the tree is being grown for a lumber crop, where sapsucker damage is referred to as “bird peck.” In a landscape setting, your options for controlling sapsucker damage are to place a barrier such a plastic mesh or burlap around the trunk of the tree; employ a sticky bird repellent like tanglefoot; place pie pans, wind chimes, or anything that makes a loud noise on or near the tree; or place a fake owl near the tree. Unless this damage is being done to a valuable or sentimental tree, allowing the bird to continue may prevent it from visiting other trees on the property. In a woodland setting, options are pretty much limited to living with the damage or perhaps culling out trees that have signs of decay fungus, because sapsuckers are drawn to sap from trees that have decay.

Article by FCFCDB member

Nature Note for 7/22/2018