Have you noticed strange rings of pencil-sized holes on the trunks of certain trees in your landscape recently?  If so, take heart that these holes are not emanating from an infestation of destructive insects but rather from a perfectly native, rather attractive migratory woodpecker, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Syphrapicus varius)!

The Sapsucker is a smallish bird with a chisel-like bill, easily distinguishable by bold black and white face stripes and a conspicuous bright-red crown and throat.   If you have any problem identifying it by its features, look to its migration pattern, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker overwinters in mild winter areas of the Americas (like Florida’s Panhandle) and causes damage during this period (roughly December through March).  If you notice a bird wreaking havoc on your backyard flora this afternoon, it is likely a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (male) on pecan
James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org


Like other members of its family, this woodpecker makes a living by “pecking” holes in trunks of trees and small shrubs about chest-high from the ground and feeds on sap and the occasional insect drawn to the sap.  Fortunately, the damage is not usually harmful to the tree except in severe cases where the trunk may be girdled or secondary infection occurs from pests/diseases entering the tree through the holes.  Unfortunately for Florida gardeners, this little bird has preferences in which trees it attacks, the majority of which are favorite landscape plants.  For example, heavy feeding has been observed, both anecdotally by the author and more scientifically by researchers and birding enthusiasts, on Red Maple, Pecan, Chinese Elm, American Holly, Pine and Live Oak.  They also really seem to enjoy any soft-wooded shrub limbed-up in a treelike form like Waxmyrtle, Viburnum and Dahoon Holly.  Talk about frustrating!

Sapsucker damage in a tree trunk.
Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Extension.

After learning that Sapsucker damage is not usually harmful, most homeowners opt to not control the birds’ feeding.  However, if the aesthetic damage is not acceptable in your landscape, there are a few semi-effective control options and a host of other, less-effective home remedies.  Wrapping the trunks of favored species with a loose, thick material such as burlap or felt is the preferred method of many ornamental nurseries and tree farms due to the material’s reusability and ease of removal after the migration has passed.  Other commercial enterprises have had mixed success with hanging visually frightening CDs, pie plates and the like from low branches.  Even less success has been seen with other homemade “cures” ranging from rubbing trunks of favored trees with Ivory soap to the use of sticky materials to deter perching.  Shooting or trapping Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers is not permitted as the birds are protected by state and federal wildlife law.  As always, please contact your local UF / IFAS Extension office for advice and recommendations for other methods of discouraging unwanted bird visits!

Happy New Year and good gardening!


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