Is That a Kitten in a Tree?

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

During the past two weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors in windy, snowy, cold weather looking for birds on Christmas Bird Counts in PA, NJ, and DE.  One of the highlights was a close encounter with something “mewing” from a tree.  Was it a kitten high up in need of rescue from the local fire company?  It certainly sounded like it, but a closer look revealed a bird that does a pretty good kitten imitation.  No, it wasn’t a Catbird, but a winter resident with a strange and unusual name…the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker "Mews" from a Red Maple near Elmer, NJ.
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker "Mews" from a Red Maple near Elmer, NJ.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is an unusual woodpecker that spends the winter in Delaware.  Unusual in that a large portion of its diet is sap from trees.  Apparently, Sapsuckers will drink the sap from over 1,000 species of woody plants, but in this area, I usually see their sapwells on maples, elms, hickories, and walnuts.  These birds get the sap by drilling into tree bark.  Sapsuckers maintain and visit their sap wells daily to eat the sap that has collected in the well and any insects that may be nearby.  The sapsucker drills a round hole to get xylem sap and a rectangular slit to get phloem sap.  In our area, I normally see the round holes used for extracting xylem sap.

Rows of wells drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in a Sweetgum tree.
Rows of wells drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to extract the xylem sap of a Sweetgum tree.

Other animals utilize the wells during winter and early spring.  Squirrels, other woodpeckers, and insects like Mourning Cloak butterflies find sapsucker wells to their liking.  The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a heavy user of sapsucker holes, especially if they find themselves in an area with little flower-bloom.  Sapsuckers will defend their sap wells from these nectar-stealers.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker blends in very well against treebark as it visits its sap wells.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker blends in very well against treebark as it visits its sap wells.

Next time you hear what sounds like something “mewing” up in a tree, don’t rush for the phone to dial the fire department.  Take a closer look…it might be a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Also, look for Sapsucker holes near where you live.  See if this woodpecker with the strange name pays a visit during the winter. 

Sign up for the Breakfast and Birds at Coverdale Farm taking place on Friday, January 15.  Enjoy a delicious and healthy breakfast including Coverdale Farm chicken eggs, and a walk around the farm and Burrows Run Preserve to find wintering species, and maybe, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

To hear the sound of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, click this link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow-bellied_Sapsucker/sounds.

2 thoughts on “Is That a Kitten in a Tree?”

  1. Joe,
    Thank you for this- we have a sapsucker who visits the trees around our house every day; I will go looking for the sap wells!

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