• Christopher Stephens, MSc

Sapsuckers: A Hummingbird's Helper

Updated: Aug 18

Specialized Woodpeckers Assist Migratory Hummingbirds

A Red-breasted Sapsucker Searches for Food on Vancouver Island

North America is home to an impressive variety of woodpeckers, which inhabit all types of forested environments and sometimes make use of desert and grassland habitats in the case of more specialized species.

One of the most interesting groups of woodpeckers would be the sapsuckers, genus Sphyrapicus. Exclusive to the North American continent, these woodpeckers have fascinating color patterns and an equally remarkable life history. Sapsucker physiology, behavior and ecological adaptations offer some of the most fascinating case studies in avian biology. All four species of sapsucker are found in British Columbia, which is Canada's most ecologically diverse province and include the Red-breasted Sapsucker pictured, which is often mistaken for the more distantly related Red-headed Woodpecker, the Red-naped Sapsucker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Williamson's Sapsucker.

These birds have a more gentle tapping feeding pattern than more "aggressive" woodpeckers like the Pileated Woodpecker famous from cartoon scenes and the cute but strident Northern Flicker. They drill wells in trees that produce palatable sap and then use their strange brush-like tongues to extract the nutritious, sweet sap. Sapsuckers also feed on unfortunate hungry insects attracted to the sap wells.

Hummingbirds migrating to North American breeding grounds face a springtime challenge. Their arrival is often a little early, and finding enough nectar can be difficult when many key plants are not yet in bloom. To address the shortage of food in between hummingbird arrival and full nectar availability, hummingbirds may "team up" with an unwitting sapsucker to gain a very creative survival advantage from drinking sap from the wells drilled by the sapsuckers. Without the drilling activity creating a ready food source, the valuable resource would be out of reach of delicate bill equipped hummingbirds.

Different hummingbird species have ranges that overlap with different sapsucker species. For example, the Rufous Hummingbird follows the tracks of the Red-breasted Sapsucker in the Pacific Northwest, while further east, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds benefit from the well drilling activity of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.


 © 2020 by Christopher M. Stephens Consulting & Writing

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