Bird Database

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

(Sphyrapicus varius)

State of the Birds
At a Glance



Short distance




Predation, Collisions

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

(Sphyrapicus varius)

If you hear an erratic “rat-a-tat-tat-tat” echoing from your roof, siding, or gutters in April or May, chances are that a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has discovered the acoustic properties of that portion of your house and is using it to announce his territory to rivals and mates alike. Like all woodpeckers, sapsuckers don’t sing, and instead drum by rapidly tapping their bills against something that carries the sound well. Usually this is a tree, but woodpeckers will adapt to anything that resonates nicely.

In addition to being noisy, sapsuckers are famous for their distinctive foraging behavior. They drill horizontal rows of small round holes in trees and later visit them to drink the sap and eat any insects that might be attracted. They will defend these “sap wells” against other sapsuckers, as well as the hummingbirds that are also attracted to them. Although holes can reach high densities on some trees, there is limited evidence that sapsuckers cause long-term damage. Unlike other woodpeckers, sapsuckers don’t drill holes to extract insects from deeper in trees, instead capturing these prey directly from the bark – or sometimes by flycatching.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is found throughout forest habitats in New Hampshire, although it is absent as a breeding species at the highest elevations and along the seacoast. It prefers forests with early successional species such as aspen, birches, and maples, and perhaps for this reason it is more common along edges or in disturbed habitats. This habitat flexibility may also be behind its increasing population.

An affinity for edges probably also benefits sapsuckers during migration and winter, when most move out of the breeding range into the southeastern United States, Mexico, and the western Caribbean. Here they can be found in gardens and Developed Areas as long as there are a few trees to tap. This winter range is gradually moving northward, probably in conjunction with climate change, and sapsucker are an increasingly common winter bird in New Hampshire. These sapsuckers are often at feeders, where they feed on suet and sometimes seeds. There is one intriguing case of an immature bird visiting a Concord feeder one January and an adult female in the same location the following December. The fact that it fed on the same fruiting shrub 12 months apart strongly suggests it was the same bird returning to a good wintering spot.

Seasonal Abundance

Relative abundance based on eBird data. Numbers indicate likelihood of finding this species in suitable habitat at a given time of year, not actual numbers encountered.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Range Map

Information for the species profiles on this website was compiled from a combination of the sources listed below.

  • The Birds of New Hampshire. By Allan R. Keith and Robert B. Fox. 2013. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological club No. 19.

  • Atlas of the Breeding Birds of New Hampshire. Carol R. Foss, ed. 1994. Arcadia Publishing Company and Audubon Society of New Hampshire

  • Birds of the World. Various authors and dates. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

  • Data from the Breeding Bird Survey

  • Data from the Christmas Bird Count