April 1, 2024
Sapsucker art is kitchen window entertainment at the North End


By Mary Reid Barrow

Photos by Barbara and Andrew Fine

Barbara and Andrew Fine say the yellow-bellied sapsuckers’ intricate sap wells on a tree in their North End yard reminds them of Australian Aboriginal artwork.

There are no woodpeckers in Australia, but our good old Virginia sapsuckers really do have a creative touch when it comes to the sap holes they drill in trees here.

Recently, the Fines have been able to watch up close from their kitchen window what they think is a male and a female sapsucker making art. The birds use their sharp little beaks to peck away off and on throughout the day at the trunk of a stray, overgrown, off-kilter pittosporum. The shrubby tree grows right under their window in a bed of seedling pittosporums between their house and the house next door.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are not much bigger than downy woodpeckers. Like downys, they are mostly black and white. The males have a deep red cap and neck while the females have only the dark red cap. A light fluff of yellow on their bellies is all that gives them the color in their name.

But “sapsucker” says it all. The birds have a big, sweet tooth. Working on their sap wells and lapping up the sugary sap and any insects nearby is about all they eat or do. To keep the staff of life flowing, the industrious little birds work overtime to bore more holes and enlarge the holes they already have.

Year round residents here in this part of the Virginia, sapsuckers are like our local farmers who always have something growing in the field. Neither a farmer’s nor a sapsucker’s work is ever done.

According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, a sapsucker will first dig a round small, but deep hole into the tree truck to grab the sap that’s moving out to the branches in early spring.

Then the birds line up shallow more rectangular holes to capture the sap as it flows back to the trunk, creating good looking blocky chunks of sapsucker art. Like the busy farmer, the birds continue their fresh drilling to keep the sap flowing. Insects under the bark or caught in the sap are the tasty byproduct.

The wells might even be called the local neighborhood bar. The Fines have seen squirrels sipping sap from their tree too.

Art, neighborhood bar, a favorite sight from the window, the sapsuckers know nothing of this. It’s all a matter of getting food on the table. But we sure enjoy it.


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