One of the few bird groups with a name sillier than woodpecker is the sapsucker. To make matters worse, the poor sapsuckers are actually part of the woodpecker family, Picidae. In North America, there are 22 species of birds in this family, 4 of which are sapsuckers, all in the genus Sphyrapicus. Around southeastern Arizona, we occasionally get a stray Red-breasted Sapsucker, a west coast bird, rare Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers or Williamson’s Sapsucker (more common in the high country), but our most common sapsucker is the Red-naped, a bird that can be found fairly regularly from October until April, when it moves back to higher ground for the summer.
Like other woodpeckers, sapsuckers have chisel-like bills and stiff tails that help prop them upright while they cling to tree trunks and hammer away. Sapsuckers also have an affinity for tree sap. Sapsuckers would more appropriately be named ‘saplappers’, since they don’t actually suck sap, but lick and lap it up as it oozes out of the holes they pound into trees. They have an extensible tongue that is long, sticky and barbed, like other woodpeckers, which allows them to penetrate and retrieve insects from crevices. Unlike other woodpeckers, the sapsucker also uses this tongue to lap up nutrient and sugar-rich phloem tree sap. Phloem is plant tissue that transports nutrients from the photosynthetic part of the plant (leaves) to the plant’s roots. The vascular phloem system is found in the tree’s bark, allowing sapsuckers to reach it easily by drilling small shallow holes with their bill. These holes are unique and easily recognizable as horizontal rows of small squares. Normally, the phloem exposed by a drilled hole would quickly congeal and seal, but the holes sapsuckers dig (called wells) allow the rich sap to remain fluid. This is most likely the result of an anticoagulant deposited by the sapsucker as he drills. This liquid sap attracts insects, as well, adding protein to the sugar-rich sapsucker wells. Other creatures are then drawn to the sapsucker wells, including bats, porcupines, warblers, Verdins and hummingbirds, one of the primary beneficiaries of the sapsucker’s labor.
Hummingbirds rely on nectar for as much as 90 percent of their diet, and sapsucker wells are especially important to migratory hummingbirds that nest in the north, often arriving before adequate nectar-producing flowers have bloomed. In addition, insects drawn to the wells help satisfy the protein needs of the hummers. Even in southern states, sapsucker wells drilled by migrating sapsuckers provide an important food source for hummingbirds that winter over. Here in southeastern Arizona, the Red-naped Sapsucker wells are sometimes a critical winter food source for Anna’s, Costa’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds that live here year-round. For birders, looking for sapsuckers or their neat rows of holes is often an easy way to find hummingbirds. Hummingbirds feed on these wells as aggressively as they do on home sugar water feeders, rewarding patient birders with good opportunities to observe and photograph them. Sapsuckers inadvertently provide food for hummingbirds equal to the sugar water feeders we hang. From the hummingbird’s point of view, sapsuckers may well be their best friends. In spite of that silly name.
(This article originally appeared in the February, 2015 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)