The yellow-bellied sapsucker (like this male shown here) is a species of woodpecker that lives in Georgia only during the winter. The bird drills a series of small, horizontal holes in trees to obtain tree sap, which is its primary food. PHOTO CREDIT: dominic sherony/Creative Commons

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers arriving to spend winter in Georgia

While sitting in my home office in Decatur the other morning, I saw a flash of red on a tulip poplar outside my window. A red-bellied woodpecker, I thought.

Then I got a better look. It was a another kind of woodpecker — a yellow-bellied sapsucker, probably recently arrived from up north to spend the winter here. The species is, in fact, eastern North America’s only migratory woodpecker, nesting up north during summer and flying south as far as Panama for the winter.

Many sapsuckers, however, migrate no farther south than Georgia, where they stay for the winter and become one of our common winter birds. Come spring, they all will leave to return to their breeding grounds as far north as Canada.

Migratory, however, isn’t the only distinction that sets the yellow-bellied sapsucker apart from Georgia’s seven other woodpecker species, which are all year-round residents. For one thing, the sapsucker’s name is one of the most unusual and catchiest in the avian world, sounding almost like an insult.

But as weird as “yellow-bellied sapsucker” sounds, the bird is aptly named. It has a striking black, white and red upper body but a light yellow belly. And tree sap is its preferred food.

Indeed, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are most famous for drilling horizontal rows of small, evenly-spaced holes — called sap wells — into tree bark to make the sugary sap pool up in the tiny reservoirs. With specialized tongues that resemble artist paint brushes, the birds lick up the sap. They also readily eat insects that are lured to the sap wells and become trapped in the sap.

The birds drill year-round, and their sap wells have been found in 250 tree species — hardwoods and conifers. When you stroll through the woods, look for these “sapsucker trees.”

Some tree experts say that the sap drilling — a natural process that has been taking place over eons of time — may kill certain trees. The consensus, though, seems to be that sapsucker tree damage is not significant.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be new on Thursday. Venus and Mars are low in the east just before dawn and both will appear near the moon on Wednesday morning. Saturn is low in the southwest at dusk and sets a few hours later.