February: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
The forest has many noises – the whistling of the wind through the tree canopy, the crunch of leaves under footsteps, the chirping of crickets, the singing of songbirds to name a few songs on nature’s soundtrack. But one of the most recognizable is a repetitive knock knock knock high above your ears. For those who are familiar with that sound, a distinct tapping noise as if someone is using a hollow tree as a percussion instrument, this means that February’s bird of the month is eagerly looking for its next meal.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), one of the beautiful woodpecker species native to Philadelphia, is this month’s highlighted bird. A favorite among bird watchers, this woodpecker is a thrill to find in the wild because of its aforementioned tree-tapping signal. And yes, while this bird does sound like it could be in a cartoon, it is a real wonder to find right in your backyard! Depending on the season, these birds can be spotted in just about any state or country west of the Rocky Mountains, as north as British Columbia, and as south as Panama and the Caribbean Islands. They can thrive in all types of wooded areas under 6,500 feet of elevation, and while their numbers have declined a bit in some southern states, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s population is strong.
There are a couple reasons why February and the start of the Spring season are the best times to start watching for these birds. For one, without leaves obstructing your view, you will be able to see the full coloration of these woodpeckers while they’re at work. They are adorned in speckled black and white feathers with a flashy red head which they often stick up to form a peak, and this makes them easy to spot on tree trunks and larger branches. Males look a little different with a red throat. And in terms of size, they are about 8 inches in length with a 14-inch wingspan on average.
But another reason this is the start of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker “season” is because this bird becomes especially active this time of year. Listen for their mew-like calls and tapping to find a bird’s territory. Though, one of the biggest giveaways are sapwells – a.k.a. tiny holes that are drilled into tree bark. They are typically arranged in neat little rows where the woodpecker has inched its way along in search of insects, sap, and tree cambrium. While this is impressive, it may appear painful for the bird. Don’t worry – Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are trained experts with hardy beaks that bore into wood with ease. Over 1,000 different species of trees and woody plants across North and Central America have been found with sapwell networks, so these industrious birds are always looking for somewhere to tap away. Plus, the noise it produces helps amplify an individuals’ claim to a patch of trees. You may even see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker rattling away at a metal street sign or chimney flashing to get some extra volume.
These birds are a wonderful harbinger of warmer days to come. But not only are they an aesthetic sight amidst a bleak February forest; they also help the diets of other species like bats and porcupines when they are looking for food. Both animals visit sapwells after our woodpeckers have completed their work, and even Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in some parts of Canada have timed their migrations to align with new sapwells.
For more information about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what types of feeders may attract this month’s bird or other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips and resources.