Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Sapsucker

Teacher's Story

THE sapsucker is a woodpecker that has strayed from the paths of virtue; he has fallen into temptation by the wayside, and instead of drilling a hole for the sake of the grub at the end of it, he drills for drink. He is a tippler, and sap is his beverage; and he is also fond of the soft, inner bark. He often drills his holes in regular rows and thus girdles a limb or a tree, and for this is pronounced a rascal by men who have themselves ruthlessly cut from our land millions of trees that should now be standing. It is amusing to see a sapsucker take his tipple, unless his saloon happens to be one of our prized young trees. He uses his bill as a pick and makes the chips fly as he taps the tree; then he goes away and taps another tree. After a time he comes back and, holding his beak close to the hole for a long time, seems to be sucking up the sap; he then throws back his head and "swigs" it down with every sign of delirious enjoyment. The avidity with which these birds come to the bleeding wells which they have made, has in it all the fierceness of a toper crazy for drink; they are particularly fond of the sap of the mountain ash, apple, thorn apple, canoe birch, cut-leaf birch, red maple, red oak, white ash and young pines. However, the sapsucker does not live solely on sap, he also feeds upon insects whenever he can find them. When feeding their young, the sapsuckers are true flycatchers, snatching insects while on the wing. The male has the crown and throat crimson, edged with black with a black line extending back of the eye, bordered with white above and below. There is a large, black circular patch on the breast which is bordered at the sides and below with lemon yellow. The female is similar to the male and has a red forehead, but she has a white bib instead of a red one beneath the chin. The distinguishing marks of the sapsucker should be learned by the pupils. The red is on the front of the head instead of on the crown, as is the case with the downy and hairy; when it is flying the broad, white stripes extending from the shoulders backward, form a long, oval figure, which is very characteristic.


The yellow bellied sapsucker.

Drawing by L. A. Fuertes.

The sapsuckers spend the winter in the Southern States where they drill wells in the white oak and other trees. From Virginia to Northern New York and New England, where they breed, they are seen only during migration, which occurs in April; then the birds appear two and three together and are very bold in attacking shade trees, especially the white birch. They nest only in the Northern United States and northward. The nest is usually a hole in a tree about forty feet from the ground, and is likely to be in a dead birch.

Lesson XV

The Sapsucker

Leading thought—The sapsucker has a red cap, a red bib and a yellow breast; it is our only woodpecker that does injury to trees. We should learn to distinguish it from the downy and hairy, as the latter are among the best bird friends of the trees.

Methods—Let the observations begin with the study of the trees which have been attacked by the sapsucker, which are almost everywhere common, and thus lead to an interest in the culprit.


1. Have you seen the work of the sapsucker? Are the holes drilled in rows completely around the tree? If there are two rows or more, are the holes set evenly one below another?

2. Do the holes sink into the wood, or are they simply through the bark? Why does it injure or kill a tree to be girdled with these holes? Have you ever seen the sapsuckers making these holes? If so, how did they act?

3. How many kinds of trees can you find punctured by these holes? Are they likely to be young trees?

4. How can you distinguish the sapsucker from the other woodpeckers? How have the hairy and downy, which are such good friends of the trees, been made to suffer for the sapsucker's sins?

5. What is the color of the sapsucker as follows: Forehead, sides of head, back, wings, throat, upper and lower breast? What is the difference in color between the male and female?

6. In what part of the country do the sapsuckers build their nests? Where do they make their nests and how?

Supplementary reading—Bird Neighbors, Blanchan; Birds, Bees and Sharp Eyes, John Burroughs.

In the following winter the same bird (a sapsucker) tapped a maple-tree in front of my window in fifty-six places; and, when the day was sunny and the sap oozed out he spent most of his time there. He knew the good sap-days, and was on hand promptly for his tipple; cold and cloudy days he did not appear. He knew which side of the tree to tap, too, and avoided the sunless northern exposure. When one series of well-holes failed to supply him, he would sink another, drilling through the bark with great ease and quickness. Then, when the day was warm, and the sap ran freely, he would have a regular sugar-maple debauch, sitting there by his wells hour after hour, and as fast as they became filled sipping out the sap. This he did in a gentle, caressing manner that was very suggestive. He made a row of wells near the foot of the tree, and other rows higher up, and he would hop up and down the trunk as they became filled.

—Winter Neighbors, John Burroughs.

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