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Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

April 28, 1999
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers overwinter in the southern United States and migrate north through the lower Midwest between late March and mid-May. During the summer, they live in the northern United States and southern Canada and migrate south through the lower Midwest between mid-September and mid-October. These are the only times that trees are damaged in Illinois, although the same bird apparently visits the same tree year after year.

These woodpeckers are almost 8 inches long with black-and-white backs and off-white breasts. The yellow belly is evident only on some birds in just the right lighting situation. Males have red on the throat and top of the head. Females have little or no red coloration.

Sapsucker damage is found on many ornamental and fruit trees; they commonly attack pine, birch, maple, and apple. They drill a series of holes in either horizontal or vertical rows in tree trunks or large limbs. Because they sit vertically on the trunk or along the long axis of the limb, these holes are located between branches. As sap flows into the holes, the sapsucker uses its brushlike tongue to draw the sap up along with any insects that are attracted to the sap. Sapsuckers will also periodically enlarge the holes and eat portions of the cambium, inner bark, and fresh sap.

In areas where the sapsuckers migrate only, such as Illinois, damage is rarely extensive enough to warrant control action. Trees in these areas where damage is very visible, such as near building entrances, may warrant control actions to reduce aesthetic damage. Where the birds spend the summer or winter, they can feed heavily enough on trees to kill them.

Woodpeckers are classified under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as migratory insectivorous birds and are protected by both state and federal law. As a result, certain activities affecting them are subject to legal restriction. It is illegal for any person to kill, take, possess, transport, sell, or purchase them or their parts, such as feathers, nest, or eggs without a permit issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, a state or federal permit is not required to scare or harass a woodpecker that is causing damage.

Prompt and persistent action is required to deter a woodpecker that is attracted to a particular tree or area. The use of a combination of scaring techniques is more successful than relying on just one scaring technique or device. Strips of aluminum foil 3 to 4 inches wide and 3 to 4 feet long or similar-sized strips of cloth or plastic can be hung in front of the damaged area. Tin can lids or aluminum pie pans tied to heavy string so they will rattle and flash in the sun can also be used. Raptor silhouettes or effigies have been successfully used in some cases.

Repellents such as Tanglefoot, Bird Stop, and Roost-No-More can be applied to tree limbs and trunks to discourage sapsuckers. Or the repellents can first be applied to a thin piece of pressed board, ridged clear plastic sheets, or other suitable material, which is then fastened to the areas where damage is occur-ring.

Loosely wrapping sapsucker-damaged limbs in burlap, hardware cloth, or plastic will protect the area from further damage. Be sure to remove this wrapping after the birds have migrated through the area and before the weather becomes consistently warm. Treating the damaged areas with asphalt-based roofing paint has successfully repelled sapsuckers that were damaging fruit trees. (Phil Nixon and Robert Corrigan; adapted and modified from Rex Marsh, University of California, Davis)

Author: Phil Nixon Robert Corrigan


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