By Margit Codispoti
It was late November when I heard a mewing sound from a tree in my back yard. I immediately thought catbird but it was too late in the year to expect a catbird in Indiana. Then I spotted the bird on the tree trunk, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). I had never associated the sapsucker with a mewing sound but when checking the recordings on my bird app, I verified that the cat-like call I heard was indeed a sound the sapsucker makes.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a migrant through northern Indiana and usually seen March to April and September to November. The sapsucker breeds in Canada and northern states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Sometimes stragglers are seen in northern Indiana during Christmas bird counts.
Like other woodpeckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is mostly black, white and red, but as its name indicates, its underside is yellowish in color. It is somewhat larger than a downy woodpecker. To distinguish the sapsucker from other woodpeckers, look for the long white stripe on the side of its wings. On the male the red throat is the most obvious distinguishing mark. Both sexes have red foreheads and a black shield on their chest. It is usually found climbing up, down, and around tree trunks.
The name ‘sapsucker’ describes its feeding behavior. It drills a series of holes creating a ring into tree trunks and then feeds on the tree sap and any bugs that have been trapped in the sap. Sapsuckers choose tree species with high sugar concentrations in their sap, such as paper birch, yellow birch, sugar maple, red maple, and hickory.
When sapsuckers drill too many holes in any one tree, they can girdle it, cutting off the flow of sap to the branches, possibly killing the tree. This is more of a problem in northern states, but when it happens in orchards and other trees important to humans, it can be a problem.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are cavity nesters. The male does most of the work excavating the cavity over about 2 to 3 weeks. No lining is placed within the nest; the eggs are laid on wood chips left over from the excavation. There are 4-6 eggs per clutch, and incubation lasts 10-13 days. Young fledge after 25-30 days.
In addition to the mewing sound mentioned earlier, the sapsucker also has a squealing call, a repeated quee-ah, quee-ah, that’s territorial and they make a waa call when disturbed or to alert others to danger. Like other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s drumming is slower and more irregular than other woodpeckers. Its stuttering cadence can sound like somebody tapping out morse code. In addition to trees with good resonance, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also drum on metal surfaces — like street signs or chimney flashing — to amplify their territorial messages. The drumming is usually done by males during breeding season.