Sapsuckers are stealing anything sweet

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  Published at 10:25 pm, June 15, 2024 Sapsucker with orange | Courtesy Bill SchiessA male red-naped sapsucker stealing from an orange put out for Bullock’s orioles and Western tanagers. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

My oranges, put out for Bullock’s orioles and Western tanagers, were disappearing at an alarming rate this spring during the early mornings. By the time the orioles and tanagers got up and started breakfast, half of the orange meat was gone, and most of the juice had been sucked out. It was time for me to do some detective work.

I usually put out fresh orange halves in the evening because of my busy morning schedule, so after I put out the sweet offerings, I watched in the evening; nothing happened. Last Monday morning, I again hid to see what was happening and caught the culprits. Red-naped sapsuckers were stealing most of the sweets before the other colorful birds got up.

I have been watching a pair of sapsuckers as they have built their nest, created traps for insects and have hatched out their baby hole-drillers. This pair have nested in the same grove of quaking aspen for about three years now, and they have a routine down to a science.

Sapsucker 3 | Courtesy Bill SchiessA sapsucker making holes in the bark of a willow to expose sap and collect insects for food. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

Their name comes from their drilling into the sapwood— creating lines of holes in nearby trees — that allows the birds to collect the sap on special hairs on their tongue. They do not “suck” the sap, but the sap sticks to the hairs on their tongue and they “lap” it up along with ants or other insects that are caught in the sap.

Sapsucker 6  | Courtesy Bill SchiessAn adult sapsucker collects sap and possibly some insects from a sap pocket that it had recently created. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

Other birds may be attracted to the “sap fields,” and the sapsuckers will defend their farms and chase other birds away. I have seen Bullock’s orioles and Western tanagers and even butterflies raiding the sap-producing farms.

Gathering sap can be a very sticky business. The sapsuckers will fill their bills with insects and sap from willows, aspen and evergreens. Sometimes they will even get some hitchhikers glued to their faces and necks before flying home to feed their babies.

When the kids are young, they need soft-bodied highly nutritious insects, so the parents will collect caterpillars and other soft bodies — including butterfly bodies once the wings have been removed.

Sapsucker 4 | Courtesy Bill SchiessA female sapsucker with its mouth full of soft-bodied insects for newly hatched chicks to eat. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

Sapsuckers are cavity nesters, and most of them like to chip out their nest in aspens because the older aspens are often hollow while still alive. Most aspens are plagued with heart-wood fungus which rots the inside of mature trees. The males do much of the building of a new nest — often in the same tree they have used the previous season.

After a suitable home has been created and eggs have been laid, the male will feed the female or will even take his turn keeping the eggs warm. After the eggs hatch, it takes both parents to keep the fast-growing kids satisfied. Otherwise the children will make a lot of noise, calling for more food. That makes their nests easier to find while you are hiking in the woods.

Sapsucker 5 | Courtesy Bill SchiessA young sapsucker howlers for more food after a parent had just fed one of its siblings. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

Since I have a couple of oriole nests in my yard and probably a couple of sapsucker nests in my neighborhood, I will continue putting out orange halves for them to eat. Other feeders will soon be taken down, cleaned and put away until next autumn when the fall migrations begin. Taking down the feeders when there is abundant natural food for most birds encourages them to not depend on me for their food.

Good luck and enjoy all the wildlife and beautiful world around us. Be careful as there are still a lot of large animals crossing the highways and other roads.

Sapsucker 7 | Courtesy Bill SchiessAn adult sapsucker shows some of its tongue hairs as it tries to cough up an insect that got caught in its throat. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

Living the Wild Life is brought to you by The Healing Sanctuary.


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