Murder is committed on his immensely useful relatives, who have the misfortune to look ever so little like him, simply because ignorant people’s minds are firmly fixed in the belief that every woodpecker is a sapsucker, therefore a tree-killer, which only this miscreant is, and very rarely. The rest of the family who drill holes in a tree harmlessly, even beneficially, do so because they are probing for insects. The sapsucker alone drills rings or belts of holes for the sake of getting at the soft inner bark and drinking the sap that trickles from it.

Mrs. Eckstorm, who has made a careful study of the woodpeckers in a charming little book that every child should read, tells of a certain sapsucker that came silently and early in the autumn mornings to feed on a favourite mountain ash tree near her dining-room window. In time this rascal killed the tree. “Early in the day he showed considerable activity,” writes Mrs. Eckstorm, “flitting from limb to limb and sinking a few holes, three or four in a row, usually above the previous upper girdle of the limbs he selected to work upon. After he had tapped several limbs, he would sit patiently waiting for the sap to flow, lapping it up quickly when the drop was large enough. At first he would be nervous, taking alarm at noises and wheeling away on his broad wings till his fright was over, when he would steal quietly back to his sapholes. When not alarmed, his only movement was from one row of holes to another, and he tended them with considerable regularity. As the day wore on he became less excitable, and clung cloddishly to his tree trunk with ever increasing torpidity, until finally he hung motionless as if intoxicated, tippling in sap, a disheveled, smutty, silent bird, stupefied with drink, with none of that brilliancy of plumage and light-hearted gaiety which made him the noisiest and most conspicuous bird of our April woods.”

But it must be admitted that very rarely does the sapsucker girdle a tree with holes enough to sap away its life. He may have an orgie of intemperance once in awhile, but much should be forgiven a bird as dexterous as a flycatcher in taking insects on the wing and with a hearty appetite for pests. Wild fruit and soft-shelled nuts he likes too. He never bores a tree to get insects as his cousins do, for only when a nest must be chiseled out is he a wood pecker in the strict sense.

You may know this erring one by the pale, sulphur-yellow tinge on his white under parts, the white patch above the tail on his mottled black and white back, his spotted wings with conspicuous white coverts, the broad black patch on his breast extending to the corners of his mouth in a chin strap, and the lines of crimson on forehead, crown, chin and throat. He is smaller than a robin by two inches, yet larger than the English sparrow, who shares with him a vast amount of public condemnation.


Text: Birds Every Child Should Know by Neltje  Blanchan
Author of “Bird Neighbours,” “Birds that Hunt and Are Hunted,”
“Nature’s Garden,” and “How to Attract the Birds.”
1907 by Doubleday, Page & Company

Sphyrapicus varius.jpg
Sphyrapicus varius” by dominic sheronyYellow-bellied Sapsucker. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.