The temperatures are warming and we are experiencing consistently more days and nights above the freezing mark. Warmer temperatures mean a whole host of migrating birds will soon be upon us. One migrating bird that often grabs the attention of homeowners is the Yellow-bellied sapsucker and this is because of the distinctive damage they leave behind on the trunks of trees.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are members of the woodpecker family (Picidae). Unlike other woodpeckers that feed almost entirely on insects, yellow-bellied sapsuckers have a diet primarily consisting of tree sap. However, they will feed on the insects attracted to the sap along with some berries and fruit. To obtain this sap, they peck holes measuring about one-quarter inch diameter (¼” dia.), into tree trunks. The holes they create are nearly always in an orderly fashion creating vertical or horizontal lines.

Damage from these woodpeckers generally coincide with their migration north in the spring, from early-April through mid-May, and again when they fly back south through Illinois, from mid-September through October. In Illinois, sapsucker damage does not seriously harm trees. The birds are only in the state for a short time, the holes are shallow and wounds not substantial enough to cause permanent damage. Scotch pine, Austrian pine, spruce, linden, fruit trees, and white-barked birch trees are most attacked in Illinois, although many other tree species may be attacked occasionally.

With yellow-bellied sapsuckers having little effect on tree health in Illinois, doing nothing to control the damage is a viable option. If reducing damage by this bird is desired, a couple of methods known to work may want to be considered. During the spring and fall migration period, wrap burlap (or hardware cloth) around susceptible tree trunks. Wrappings should be removed when migration periods have passed as moisture underneath the wrap may promote diseases and harbor insects. Another option would be to scare them away. Artificial owls or snakes can be used to keep the birds away. However, for them to continue to be effective, they must be moved daily. A second scare tactic is to hang foil strips, pie pans, or anything “flashy” to scare them away.

We are only a few weeks away from waking up to the singing of our native songbirds and catching sights of the migrating birds passing overhead. Until then, take a walk around your property and see if there are any signs of past yellow-bellied sapsuckers migrating through your area. Often, migrating birds travel the same path, to feed and perch on the same trees. Despite the unattractive damage they leave behind, they are quite nice to watch with similar black and white coloration of the downy or hairy woodpecker but having a distinctive white stripe along the length of their folded wing. Male sapsuckers also have more stunning red coloration, and in more places, than that of the downy or hairies.

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