What is Drilling Holes in My Trees?

What is Drilling Holes in My Trees?

They are often very prevalent on trees in our area; a strange string of shallow holes drilled in the bark of a tree. Often this is oozing sap, especially on pines and hardwoods with heavy sap flow, and more holes keep appearing as the sap dries up in others. I get calls and questions all the time about this strange phenomenon and what can be done about it. The calls are usually from homeowners with a prized backyard tree, but I get calls from farmers with orchard crops and other settings as well. What is causing this strange attack on these trees? What drills near perfect holes just into the sapwood of a tree? The answer is a bird of all things; and in particular the yellowbellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). This small to mid-sized bird is in the woodpecker family and has the peculiar diet of feeding on sweet and nourishing tree sap; as well as small insects attracted to and trapped into the sap. This little native bird drills and taps trees for sweet sap. Much like we humans do with maple trees up north for syrup production. They then visit their trees and drink the sap until the tap dries up and then drill another hole. This pattern of feeding leaves this banding of holes drilled on the tree, and they drill deep enough that it will be visible for quite a long time often permanently.

Yellowbellied Sapsucker damage on an American Sycamore-Walton County, FL Photo Credit: Ian Stone

The biggest question most people want answered, beside what is doing/causing this, is will this hurt the tree? The best answer to that is mostly no, but with all things tree related it depends. On young and smaller trees, particularly newly planted ones, the feeding can stress the tree and can cause some issues. The biggest risk is that if the sapsucker drills in a complete ring around the trunk, something more common on smaller trees, they could cause the tree to be girdled and killed. Another issue is that their feeding can attract pests and disease, such as bark and wood boring beetles along with some fungal infections of the open wounds. These pest and diseases may then go on to cause severe damage and death, especially if the tree is stressed by drought or other environmental factors. Ultimately, the feeding of the yellowbellied sapsucker rarely kills or severely damages trees by itself. Most of the time it just causes unsightly damage, and the bark damage and subsequent healing over can cause an unsightly area of bark. This is especially true on thin barked trees that have smooth bark, such as beech, magnolia, and birch.

You are probably wondering how to prevent this damage in the first place or stop it once a sapsucker takes a liking to your tree. The best thing to do is to make some changes in your landscape to prevent attracting sapsuckers and/or scare them away if they are in the area. Your first step is to learn to identify the yellowbellied sapsucker, so you can tell if they are in the area. Yellowbellied sapsuckers are a woodpecker and to many they look like several of our other small woodpeckers such as the downy, red-cockaded, and possibly even the red bellied. They look the most like a slightly larger downy woodpecker with more red on their heads. Males are the most brightly colored and have a read crown and throat patch, while females have the red crown only. The back and wings are black and white, and have somewhat of a ladder appearance on the back. They are smaller birds, around 7-8 in. in length, similar in size to a robin or cardinal. They cling to the bark and shuffle up and down the tree like other woodpeckers. The namesake yellow belly is faint and difficult to see at a distance without binoculars or other aids

Yellowbellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) side profile Photo Credit:  Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood.org

If you notice yellowbellied sapsuckers in your area, you can watch them to see which trees they seem attracted to. Once you identify the portion of your yard they seem to like; you can put up windsocks or predatory statues to scare them away. This is the most effective method to keep these somewhat pesky birds out of an area and stop the tree damage. It also does not harm the birds or any other wildlife, though it may scare away birds that you would like to stick around. You may see some information about putting up hardware cloth or metal sheeting around the trunk of the tree. This is not a good method and often it does not stop the sapsuckers, who simply find another unguarded portion of the tree or work around the exclusion device. Using hardware cloth or sheeting can also damage the tree worse than the sapsucker’s feeding activity, and if not properly installed and consistently loosened they can even girdle and kill a tree. If you are having trouble with the interesting but pesky birds, use the scare away method consistently until they leave the area. If they believe predators are in the area and regularly startled while feeding they usually leave for a better feeding area pretty quickly.   

Bird Feeder Surprises

Bird Feeder Surprises

Cardinal at bird feeder. Source: Adobe Stock.

Many homeowners enjoy placing bird feeders in the landscape and filling them with purchased bird seed mixes to delight in observing the various visitors. In addition to our common songbirds, and maybe some rare migrating species that stop for a moment, you may also find some non-feathered species, such as the ever-troubling squirrels and an occasional snake. You may find some interesting and new plants popping up under the feeder, too.

Plant volunteers under the feeder are usually coming in from the bird seed itself. Hulled seeds, as well as any imported seeds, are less likely to sprout, but bags of purchased bird seed will generally provide an ingredient list, showing you the potential options. Based on my observations, along with a review of other articles and communication with local bird seed providers, the common plants you will see sprout under the feeder include millets, safflower, and sunflowers.

Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) has a more open seed head than great millet (Sorghum bicolor). Credit: Adobe Stock.
Great millet (Sorghum bicolor), also known as sorghum or milo, is a common bird seed ingredient. Credit: Adobe Stock.

Millet is a common name applied to various grain crops. Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) and great millet (Sorghum bicolor), also known as sorghum or milo, are your most common millets in bird seed mixes. Proso millet is more preferred as bird seed since most birds tend to push aside the great millet. Lower cost bird seed products will often have the great millet, and this species will readily sprout under a feeder. In addition to feeding birds, the various millet crops are also used to feed humans throughout the world, with sorghum being the fifth most important cereal crop after rice, wheat, corn, and barley.

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a surprising find under the bird feeder. Credit: Adobe Stock.

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is the bird feeder volunteer that sparked my interest in discovering the plants contained in bird seed. Safflower is readily gobbled up by Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Nuthatches, Finches, and Titmice. This daisy relative is native to the Mediterranean region and is one of human’s earliest cultivated crops used for dyes, seasoning (a substitute for saffron), oils, and, of course, bird seed.

Everybody loves sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)! Credit: Rachel Mathes; UF/IFAS.

A more common bird feeder volunteer are sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). There are many varieties of sunflowers that have been developed over the years. Bird enthusiasts mainly distinguish between black oil and striped sunflower seeds. These derive from either oil-producing varieties (black oil seeds) or what is known as confection sunflowers (striped seed). The oil-producing varieties were bred to produce sunflower oil and the seeds are generally smaller, have a higher oil content, and a thinner husk, all making them very attractive to a larger variety of birds. The confection sunflowers have larger seeds on larger heads and were bred to be easier for us humans to get into. For feeding birds, the confection varieties with the striped seed have a thicker husk and so are harder for many smaller birds to feed on. If you allow these to grow, both varieties can grow quite large, so be prepared.

In general, many bird enthusiasts will encourage you to clean these seeds up as they can attract unwanted wildlife, from unsavory birds, like Pigeons, Starlings, and Finches, to mice and raccoons. However, even a tidy feeder of birds will likely have some seeds germinate and may want to know what they are. It’s also great fun to watch the birds skip your feeder and go right to the source, picking millet or sunflower seeds right off the plant.

Providing a diverse landscape of native plants that occupy different vertical layers is beneficial for birds and other wildlife. Credit: NC State Extension.

While bird feeders should be considered a treat for your wild birds, like desserts on the top of the old food pyramid, they are still fun to set out in the landscape to provide a spot for you and your family and friends to observe wildlife. Remember that the best way to feed the birds is to provide a diverse landscape, especially one with many different vertical layers and native plant species. For more information on feeding birds, you can read the UF/IFAS document Attracting Backyard Birds: Bird Feeder Selection that contains information on the different types of bird feeders, but also on the various seeds. The UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions website also has a great page on Gardening for Birds.

American beautyberry

American beautyberry

When beautyberries start producing their eye-catching, bright purple fruit in late summer, we start to get lots of questions. People want to know what it is, where can they find it, and can they eat it? While the berries look good enough to eat, it’s best to leave them to the birds and deer. They are not toxic and were used by Native Americans for a root tea to treat fevers, stomach aches, malaria, and more, but the taste has been described as bitter and mealy. Thanks to a generous volunteer, I am lucky enough to have tried beautyberry jelly. A little (or a lot) of sugar can make most anything taste good—and the finished product is a beautiful, translucent shade of fuchsia.

Homemade beautyberry jelly is a real treat for breakfast! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Even more interesting to me was the revelation that researchers have been able to extract compounds from beautyberry that successfully repel pest insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. The study began about 15 years ago, after a Mississippi botanist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service mentioned to a colleague that his grandfather taught him to rub the crushed leaves of beautyberry on his skin. The technique had been used as a home remedy to prevent mosquito bites for people (and horses) for generations. As a follow up experiment, another group of researchers found these same compounds—callicarpenal and intermedeol—successfully repelled black-legged ticks (which transmit Lyme disease) as effectively as DEET. In the last few years, researchers out of Mississippi have worked towards creating natural insect repellents from the compound that are less harsh on human skin that many commercially available brands.

The striking purple berries of the beautyberry shrub attract the attention of people and wildlife, alike. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Aside from its many practical uses, Callicarpa americana is a beautiful native shrub. It has wide green leaves and the brilliant purple berries grow in clusters along its stem. They stay on through late fall and winter in some places, making a beautiful contrast to fall foliage. Beautyberry shrubs can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including sandy and wet soils, full sun, and part shade. Their adaptability makes them a great plant for tight conditions like roadsides or yard edges, but also for nearly any home landscape. The plants can grow to a height of 4-8 feet and spread 3-6 feet wide. The long-lasting berries make them a great wildlife food source later in the cool season than many berry-producing species.

Local Lizards in Your Landscape

Local Lizards in Your Landscape

Anyone spending any time outdoors in the Florida panhandle is bound to come across some of our local scaly residents before too long. With our high temperatures, high humidity, and high number of insects, we have a great climate for numerous reptiles to survive in. Some are native, some are not, and it can help to learn a little about them to understand the ecology we live in.

Here are some of the most common lizards you’ll see in our area:


One of the most commonly seen lizards around, the green anole (Anolis carolinensis), is native to Florida. While it is named ‘green’, it is able to change color from green to brown. Despite this ability to camouflage themselves, they are not related to chameleons. Often active during the day, they eat a wide range of insects and other arthropods. Males can often be seen doing push-ups and flashing their dewlaps (colorful neck-flaps) as either a deterrent to predators or to attract a mate. This species favors living in trees, but can be found almost anywhere. These and many other lizards have the ability to lose their tails when pursued by predators. The tail may continue to move for some time after it detaches, which can serve as a distraction while the lizard itself flees from danger. The tail will regrow over a period of time.

A similar species is threatening our native populations of anoles. The brown anole (Anolis sagrei), also known as the Cuban brown anole, is highly invasive. They differ from the green anole in that they cannot change color, and often display a bold pattern on their skin. Introduced to the United States as stowaways on ships in the late 1800s, they compete with native species for food and sometimes even eat young green anoles. Brown anoles are typically found near the coast in the panhandle. While control of this invasive species is probably impossible at this point, you can help to avoid spreading them by cleaning equipment they may hide in (trailers or boats, for example) before transporting it, and inspecting ornamental plants for hidden anoles before moving them.


At least two species of skinks share our habitat, the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) and the broadhead skink (Plestiodon laticeps). The five-lined skink is mostly black with colorful accents, usually having a reddish head and blue tail. White or off-white stripes run lengthwise down their body. They are found in almost any habitat, and eat insects and other arthropods. The blue tail does not indicate any ability to sting, despite some local folklore.

The broadhead skink is one of the largest lizards in the area, growing up to a foot in length. Colored similarly to the five-lined skink, mature males fade in color and develop large, reddish heads with powerful jaws. They use these jaws to eat insects, invertebrates, and probably other small animals as well. Broadhead skinks prefer living in trees, but can be seen on the ground occasionally as well.

Fence Lizards

Sceloporus undulatus, the eastern fence lizard, loves dry, open woodlands. They often flee for higher ground when scared, climbing trees, stumps, or fences for protection from predators. Fence lizards have rough scales, usually patterened along their backs, with males sometimes displaying blue patches on their undersides. They, like other lizards, eat insects.


Not native but commonly seen, the Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) is a nocturnal species that is found throughout Florida. Urban and suburban locations are their favored habitats. They are often attracted to artificial lights at night, or rather the insects that themselves are attracted to the lights. Mediterranean geckos are usually pale in coloration, with almost translucent white or grey skin. They have large eyes with slit pupils and wide pads on their feet, which help them stick to smooth surfaces.

Glass Lizards

Upon first sight, one might be forgiven for thinking that a this species is actually a snake. It is not. Ophisaurus ventralis, the Eastern glass lizard, is a species of legless lizard that can grow to more than three feet in length. They hunt for insects to eat during the day, but are shy and will quickly try to hide if confronted. They are quick to shed their tails when in danger from predators; their name refers to their being perceived as brittle and breaking easily, like glass. They are not venomous, and their jaws are not powerful enough to break human skin.

Storm Cleanup an Opportunity for Practicing Florida Friendly Landscaping Principles

Storm Cleanup an Opportunity for Practicing Florida Friendly Landscaping Principles

Small debris recently littered area lawns, but these materials are no “trash”. Credit: Adobe Stock

Hurricane Idalia recently tore through the Big Bend area, battering the coast and taking down trees, leaving thousands out of power. While much of the panhandle was safe from the strong winds and storm surge, we still got some gusty weather, and likely had some amount of cleanup to do following the storm. Fortunately for us, this time, it’s mostly a lot of small branches and leaves versus entire trees that our fellow gardeners are cleaning up to the east of us. In addition to being thankful that larger branches didn’t fall here, consider turning those small bits and pieces over to wildlife while collecting your wheelbarrow loads of debris. This is a great opportunity to practice sustainable landscape practices and a few Florida-Friendly Landscaping Principles.

The UF/IFAS Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program has nine principles that it encourages Florida homeowners to practice in their landscape to conserves Florida’s natural resources. Three of the nine principles can be practiced by choosing how you manage the debris that has fallen – #4 Mulch, #5 Attract Wildlife, and #7 Recycle Yard Waste.

A mockingbird enjoys perching at the brushpile. Credit: Adobe Stock.

The first reaction when looking out at your landscape after a storm is typically “Ugh, there’s a lot of stuff to clean up.” We often want to “clean it up” and get it back to a sea of perfect cut grass, or at least sort of nice grass. However, the small branches and leaves that fall can be a great resource for wildlife, can provide mulch around a tree, and letting them rest reduces the need for you to haul all that stuff up to the road and all that goes into picking up, transporting, and processing the material.

The larger branches (four to six inches in diameter and larger) can be used for firewood or a naturalistic bed edging. Otherwise, they can go into a large brushpile. Smaller sticks and branches are perfect for one large brushpile, or, if a large pile doesn’t meet your aesthetic desires, a series of small piles scattered or hidden behind some shrubs is a good compromise. The leaves and really small stuff (branches no larger than a pencil) can be raked up for mulch, added to the brushpile(s), or just left in place to naturally rot away and/or get shredded up by the mower.

Many small, pencil size twigs, along with leaves, can be left in place as a mulch. Credit: Mark Tancig, UF/IFAS.

No matter how you leave the debris, consider how important this material is for all sorts of wildlife. Dead wood supports microbes, fungi, and animals up and down the food chain and even adds to your soil organic matter. While it may not look “clean” to us, those bits of “trash” are gold to many critters, especially small insects that bring birds to the yard. So, during cleanup, consider leaving little treats here and there for wildlife and spend less time hauling it to the road! For more information about the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Principles, visit the UF/IFAS Florida Friendly Landscaping Program website.

Consider a Native Christmas Tree

Consider a Native Christmas Tree

Eastern Redcedar

Throughout history the evergreen tree has been a symbol of life.  “Not only green when summer’s here, but also when it’s cold and dreary” as the Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” says. 

While supporting the cut Christmas tree industry does create jobs and puts money into the local economy, every few years considering adding to the urban forest by purchasing a living tree.  Native evergreen trees such as redcedar make a nice Christmas tree that can be planted following the holidays.  The dense growth and attractive foliage make redcedar a favorite for windbreaks, screens and wildlife cover. 

The heavy berry production provides a favorite food source for migrating Cedar Waxwing birds.  Its high salt-tolerance makes it ideal for coastal locations.  Their natural pyramidal-shape creates the traditional Christmas tree form, but can be easily pruned as a street tree. 

Two species, Juniperus virginiana and Juniperus silicicola are native to Northwest Florida.  Many botanists do not separate the two, but as they mature, Juniperus silicicola takes on a softer, more informal look. 

Cedar waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

When planning for using a live Christmas tree there are a few things to consider.  The tree needs sunlight, so restrict its inside time to less than a week.  Make sure there is a catch basin for water under the tree, but never allow water to remain in the tray and don’t add fertilizer.  Locate your tree in the coolest part of the room and away from heating ducts and fireplaces. 

After Christmas, install the redcedar in an open, sunny part of the yard.  After a few years you will be able to admire the living fence with all the wonderful memories of many years of holiday celebrations. Don’t forget to watch for the Cedar Waxwings.