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The Mysterious Sapsucker

Monday, February 15, 2021

 I’ve been watching an immature female yellow-bellied sapsucker since she showed up in my yard in November 2018. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers don't breed in my part of Ohio; they only show up in fall and winter, thrilling us for a short time and then pushing farther north in early spring to their breeding grounds from western PA on north.

You can tell this bird is an immature because its markings are so indistinct, with a brownish wash, and you can tell it's a female because her throat is white, with no red feathers coming in. Males have red thoats. 

Nov. 25, 2018*

This is a male yellow-bellied sapsucker, taken out the same studio window on April 2, 2019. STOP MY HEART. I've probably seen 40 subadult yellow-bellied sapsuckers for every adult male I've seen. Lordy dordy. What a bird!!

Unless you particularly like sapsuckers, you’d think she was nothing special to look at: dingy, brownish, her feathers indistinctly marked, with very little color on her head—but I adored her. She drilled holes in the birches and Chamaecyparis evergreens around my big bank of studio windows for months, staying from November into late January 2019.  All day long she visited her wells, lapping away at the sap. She delighted me, but also frustrated me. With birds all around her using the feeders, how could she ignore the delicious offerings at the feeding station just a few feet away? There was suet; there were shelled peanuts, sunflower hearts. And all she seemed to want was sap. How could she survive the winter on thin sugar water? EVERYBODY EATS AT CASA ZICK! Didn't she know that??

 I thought back to the mid 1990’s, when we had not one but two yellow-bellied sapsuckers fighting over the peanut feeder most all day long. Why would this one so stubbornly refuse to investigate other foods?

Nov. 25, 2018--drilling a little sap well. How sweet!

And so I set out courting this bird. I decided to hang a little mesh onion bag of suet crumbs and roasted peanut halves in a Chamaeyparis, right next to her bank of wells. She looked it over and went about her business. Her shoulder would brush the suet bag as she worked on her wells. Chickadees and nuthatches carried the food away right under her beak. She was a hard nut to crack.

 Dec. 6 2018. She loved this particular spot for hanging out. It's literally three feet from me as I sit at the drawing table. 

I was about to give up courting this bird when I remembered something I’d seen long ago. I rummaged around in the garage until I found a bizarre-looking  metal feeder, designed for suet. It consists of two aluminum plates, densely perforated with round holes, set in a frame. The idea is to keep raccoons and opossums from stealing suet, and it works beautifully. As I think about it, it'd probably work well with Zick Dough, too, except that you'd be filling it every ten minutes in winter...It's called the Lifelong Feeder, and it's made in Lancaster, Ohio, and sold by its inventor!

For any one with rapacious squirrels and raccoons, who likes to feed suet to woodpeckers, this is the best thing going. You don't even need to baffle it, because nothing but a bird can get to the food. It. Is. Awesome. 

 The holes perforating the plate look so much like sapsucker workings, I thought they might pique her curiosity. I stuffed the feeder with suet and hung it on the main feeder pole. Clearly, it's attractive to woodpeckers--here's a trifecta of downy, hairy and redbelly all at one time.

I could hardly believe my luck when I saw the young sapsucker fly over and hitch down to the feeder. She probed in the holes and came out with suet! Eureka! I had succeeded in thinking like a sapsucker! Being a bird, and good at synthetic thinking, it didn’t take her long to figure out that she’d seen some of that delicious white stuff in the little onion bag I’d hung up. Breathlessly, I watched her lapping at her sap wells next to the onion bag that same afternoon. And I suppressed a squeal when, out of curiosity and finally putting two and two together, she lashed her long tongue out and licked the suet. She leaned forward and teased a bit of suet out of the mesh. Next, she tried a peanut half. And we were off! 

It had literally taken weeks for this young sapsucker to get the message that feeders held treats, but once it sank in, she was hooked. She found the peanut feeder and became a fixture on it, jabbing at cardinals and other woodpeckers wanting to join her. Throughout her journey into the feeding station life, I’d taken photos of her. I was fascinated by her slow but sure acceptance of unfamiliar food conveyances, fascinated to see her adapt to different kinds of feeders and new foods. I was sure that the odd little suet feeder, with its rows of round holes, was the wedge that finally invited her into my world. From there, she expanded her thinking and learned to adapt. 

Now let's let a year go by, and it's December 6, 2019. Could this be the same sapsucker? It's hard to tell. I'd have thought she'd get more red in her crown by now. Jury's out on her identity, but this little gal is enthusiastic about the feeders, and doesn't need to be courted, coaxed or taught.

The 2019 female sapsucker was a total suet freak, and here she's hanging out with a hairy woodpecker! Pretty cool to see that they're the same size--the hairy might have a little size and certainly some heft on her! 

Look at her with a downy woodpecker for comparison. Those Hairies are Huge. Downies are Dinky. (Thanks to BT3 for that one).

Dec. 6, 2019

Whether or not this is the same bird from 2018 through winter 2019, I have a Very Good Feeling about a bird that has shown up intermittently this snowy winter of 2021. Now, maybe this Chamaecyparis is just a good place for a sapsucker to hang out, or maybe this is the little gal from 2018 and perhaps 2019, coming back for some peanuts and suet?

Feb. 11, 2021*

I asked my Ornithology Guru, Bob Mulvihill, Ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, if he might be able to tell me how old my 2021 sapsucker might be. 

Robert S. Mulvihill
 my feather guru, is it possible to age this little gal? I have my idea about how old she is based on behavior but know little about their plumage progression. 
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    ! Based on what I can see, uniformly dark primaries and secondaries, I feel pretty confident that she is what banders would call an ATY, or after third year female. That would mean she hatched in 2018 or before. But, if we could see her primary coverts, we might be able to determine age even more precisely. If she lacked any worn brown (retained juvenal) pcovs, then we could even age her A4Y, i.e., a 2017 or earlier hatch date. Regardless, she's a beauty! 
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Well, if she's After Third Year, that would mean she hatched in 2018, which is the year a female turned up as a rank brown baby of the year and got herself taught how to use feeders by one besotted birdwatcher in Whipple, Ohio.

She uses the same two resting perches outside my studio window that the 2018 juvenile did, is not afraid of me in the least, and enjoys suet and peanuts. I have a strong hunch, based on behavior and now plumage evidence, that it's the same bird, back to say hello and stock up for the winter. I notice she's not drilling many sapwells. I guess she's graduated into freeloader status. With a little help from her friend.

But there are other mysteries...who is this sleek lady, feeding at the peanuts in November, 2019?


Nov 29, 2019

Just another sapsucker passing through? Or our bird? 

And while we're into mysteries, I still haven't figured this female yellow-belly out. What's with the black crown? I recognize my gray birches; I'm sure this photo was taken in my yard sometime in the winter of 2007-2008, but I have no idea why a bird at this advanced age, with a beautiful black chest crescent, would have a black, rather than red, crown. 

I dug around a little by Googling images of female yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and found this from woodpecker expert ornithologist Lawrence Kilham:

“In the course of studying sapsuckers over 25 years and finding 69 nests, I have encountered 12 females that were black polymorphs having black or nearly black crowns. Attempts to find consistent differences in their breeding behavior have been unsuccessful.” This suggests the black crown may be present in 1 of 6 females indicating polymorphism, not mutation. 

Thrilled to have captured one in my yard! Birds. The more you know, the less you can be sure of.






Fascinating as always Julie. I love your persistence. And now I must have one of those "lifelong" feeders. Renée xo

Fascinating as always Julie. I love your persistence. And now I must have one of those "lifelong" feeders. Renée xo

Sapsuckers are infrequent here, but have been known to drum on road signs in Spring. Thanks for the nod to the suet feeder! I just ordered one for Jim. He loves the avian visitors, but not so much the mammalian. Had a Pileated this morning!

I thoroughly enjoyed this lesson.

Thank you for that link; just ordered a suet feeder! Western Bluebirds showed up here in JANUARY (what's up with THAT, Science Chimp???); I've been worried about them so when I saw a photo of bluebirds feeding at a Lifelong Feeder I was SOLD!

I'm a sucker for those suckers too. This winter I've been enjoying the company of what I think is an immature male tapping the spruce trees behind my house. While sapsuckers don't seem like the brightest of birds they are companionable. The young yellow-bellied fellow I watch has inspired a metaphor: as patient as a sapsucker in January. Don't know if it's original with me but I'll claim it until I hear otherwise.

I think that some young birds are taken to feeders by their parents (certainly see that in my yard) so learn early that feeders provide food. Maybe if the parent birds did not take her to a feeder as a fledgling, you had an "uphill battle" to teach this bird a new trick. I have a gold crowned kinglet eating peanut butter... not sure they are "supposed" to do that but... also wonder if, someday, like people, or your too-fat to fly bats, we will find that some of these foods were not 100% OK for them.

Learning new things about birds is one of my greatest pleasures. Thanks Julie for always making the lesson plan a joy!

Any chance the lifelong suet feeder deters starlings!???

So glad to have "found" you again. Delightful story. Stay well ....we need you!

SO interesting! I'll have to keep my eye out for a sapsucker with a black crown.

Last summer, we had a family of sapsuckers coming to a small willow tree not far from our front door. I suspect there was a nest close by. Sometimes the birds drilled into the tree (do willows have sap? or could they have been going after insects?). Other times they fed on the suet I had hanging in the tree. The sapsuckers didn't seem to mind our presence, and I was able to get photos of both adults and juveniles. I wonder if they'll be back this year.

Hi Julie, I met you yesterday. I just ventured out today starting to catch up on all your wonderful pictures and writtings. I started feeding birds in January for the first time in my life. It started with two beautiful Eastern Blue Birds. I feel in love with them. However, 7 feeders and every seed and suet I can find to buy locally, I've identified 19 different birds in my feeders and no blue birds. I read they are a timid bird but I would love to see them at my feeders.

I just love this and how you don't give up. Always full of ideas and out comes this perfect little feeder to entice her with. And to have a black morph - how cool is that?!

Great blog. I live in Richmond, Ontario where sapsuckers nest. We have an aspen that sapsuckers have nested in for the past 2 spring/summers. This year's parents started coming regularly to the feeders with a peanut butter/corn meal mixture. Definitely birds with a purpose. They would come for a short visit to get a beak full of the mix and fly to the nest to feed the young. I even saw them catch flying insects in the air. They come less often to the feeders now that the young have left the nest. I hope to see the young ones come for a visit soon.

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