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A red-naped sapsucker

A red-naped sapsucker drills holes in a tree.

When you imagine a woodpecker, you probably envision a bird clinging to a tree trunk and using its stout beak to dig out insects. You probably do not see a woodpecker sipping sugar, but that is exactly what the red-naped sapsucker does.

The red-naped sapsucker uses its beak to chisel neatly spaced holes into aspen bark. The bird drills a series of holes, continuing around the tree. It may then drop down and drill another set of holes.

In response to this damage, the tree fills these holes in its bark with sap. The sapsucker then periodically returns to this tree to lap up this sap using a fairly short tongue with hair-like projections on its tip. Any insects caught in the sticky sap are eaten as a bonus. The bird also eats a bit of the tree’s cambium layer as the hole is drilled.

Sapsuckers also eat pine pitch, along with insects chiseled from bark like other woodpeckers. They fly up to catch flying insects like flycatchers and even eat berries. Hummingbirds take advantage of sapsuckers’ work by following them and stealing sap and insects from their drilled holes.

Sapsuckers look like other woodpeckers. Both genders carry red patches of feathers under their chin, on their forehead and a small patch on top of their head.

They have yellow undersides. Downy woodpeckers may be mistaken for sapsuckers but carry only one red spot on the back of their head.

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Sapsucker calls are descending whinnies, commonly heard in Great Basin aspen groves. They tap on trees to signal territories in an uneven pattern called stuttering. Hollow sounding taps mean they are in a dead tree, solid taps mean a live tree.

They create nest holes in living aspen trees by chiseling out the holes, and abandoned holes are often used by other hole nesters like bluebirds, nuthatches and chickadees.

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