Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker Guide: All You Need to Know about the Migratory Woodpecker with a Sweet Tooth

I still remember the goosebumps I got the first time I heard the intense drumming, followed by a loud me-ah call in the forest and the adrenaline rush at the sight of it leaning on its tail while licking sap from a maple tree. Few birds can match the skills of a yellow-bellied woodpecker: to tap sap, drum, and mew like a cat.

This tiny bird belongs to the sapsucker group of woodpeckers. Like most woodpeckers, it features classic black and white plumage and patches of red.

While it’s like other woodpeckers in appearance, it has some distinct differences that make it stand out: its habit of drilling horizontal holes in trees and feeding on sap. 

If you’ve been birding for a while, you probably know a few things about the yellow-bellied woodpecker. But if you’re new to the scene, it can be hard to identify and distinguish it from similar species.

That’s where I come in: to remove all the guesswork and help you identify it, including its feeding, nesting, and breeding behaviors. I will give you some insightful tips on attracting it to your backyard. 

Bottom Line Up Front

The yellow-bellied woodpecker, also known as the yellow bellied sapsucker, is native to the eastern north US and Canada. It is predominantly black and white, with a black and white pied back and a red crest.

Despite its name, the yellow belly of this woodpecker isn’t as helpful in identifying it as you might think. The yellow on their stomachs is so faint and hardly visible. Your best bet to identify it is through a white band on its wings and a distinctive mewing call. 

This migratory bird is common in most parts of the eastern US and Canada, with specific summer and winter homes. So you will only see it in particular months of the year. It is most commonly found in deciduous and coniferous forests and nests in groves of small trees.

It feeds primarily on tree sap but will also eat insects, seeds, berries, spiders, and ants. This shy bird rarely visits backyards. But that doesn’t mean you can’t attract it to your backyard. Simply install suet feeders and plant sap-rich trees. 

How to Identify a Yellow-bellied Woodpecker

how to identify a yellow-bellied woodpecker

From the name, this bird has a yellow belly. But it does not help identify it unless you scrutinize it closely. Which is not easy, considering it’s a shy bird.

You are not out of options, though.

Whether in the forest or your backyard, you can identify yellow-bellied woodpeckers by their physical appearance and vocalization.

Using Physical Appearance to Identify Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker

An upright posture; a short, hefty bill; and a stiff forked tail readily confirm a yellow belly as a woodpecker.

So, how do you identify a yellow-bellied woodpecker? A yellow belly, perhaps? This can be misleading since the yellow on their bellies is just a faint hint of yellow. The yellow varies from bird to bird and region to region.

Use Colors to Identify Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker

The easiest way to identify a yellow-bellied woodpecker is by its unique coloration.

It has the classic black-and-white body typical of a woodpecker. The most striking feature you will notice about it at first is the black-and-white stripes on its face and red crown.

You can also identify it by a messy pattern on their back, but this method is not so reliable. The messy pattern blends well with tree bark, making it harder to spot the bird, especially when it sits still. I have also mistaken the messy back for lichen growing on trees.

However, the most effective way to identify a yellow-bellied woodpecker is by a white stripe on the sides of its wings. The stripe is visible when the bird is resting. This white band helps to differentiate it from the downy and hairy woodpeckers.

Females and Juveniles are Different

Both males and females are similar, but with slight differences. They both have black and white plumage and a red crest, but the male bird has a red throat with a black border. Females, on the other hand, have white throats and a dull appearance. Their plumages appear washed out, while their crowns are paler.

A juvenile’s head looks like an adult’s, but it is much lighter and lacks the usual red markings. Instead, the head appears to be a buff-brown wash that extends to their underparts and backs. Their flanks and breasts may appear scaly, and their throats may lack or have incomplete black borders.

Juvenile males develop red throats just before or on the onset of sexual maturity. But it will not be until the second spring that they will have the full-feather beauty.

Notably, this sapsucker raises its crown feathers into a crest at the back of the head.

Using Vocalizations to Identify Yellow-Bellied Woodpeckers

using vocalizations to identify yellow-bellied woodpeckers

If you’ve ever tried to identify a bird, you know how challenging it can be. You don’t have to rely on physical appearance alone for identification. Each bird has a unique sound and call, which helps to locate and identify them even before you can spot them.

Listen to the Distinctive Stuttering Drumming

Woodpeckers are experts at drumming; the yellow-bellied is certainly no slouch at it. When it drums on dead trees or metals, it produces a distinctive stuttering pattern that reverberates loudly. The song begins with rapid bursts, but then becomes drawn out.

They have a distinctive drumming rhythm that’s hard to miss. Instead of the rolling drumbeats common with other woodpeckers, they have a rhythmic tapping. It’s like they are communicating with Morse code.

The Hoarse Mews and Other Calls

When it is startled, the yellow-bellied utters a soft mew call. This call gets hoarse and louder as the threat increases.

During the breeding season, you will often hear nasal calls from the males.  They always “neaa,” “owee-owee,” “wee-wee-wee-wee,” or “kwee-urk” to attract a mate or defend their territory.

Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker is a Small Bird

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is about the size of a robin bird. It’s slightly larger than the downy woodpecker but smaller than the hairy woodpecker

Average measurements for both sexes are:

  • Length: 7.5-8.25 inches ( 19 to 22 centimeters)
  • Wingspan: 13.5-15.75 inches ( 34 to 40 centimeters)
  • Weight: Up to 60 grams.

Where Do Yellow-Bellied Woodpeckers Live: Range and Habitat?

yellow-bellied woodpeckers live, range and habitat

Yellow-bellied sap-tappers are “forest dwellers” that spend most of their time in mature forests. But because of the heavy logging in these forests, they prefer young forests.

The range of the yellow belly is extensive. They are found in Alaska, Canada, and the northeastern United States during the summer. In winter, they move south to the southeastern US, Central America, and the Indies.

They also live in a variety of habitats. When breeding, they’ll occupy mixed coniferous and deciduous forests up to 2,000 meters. The breeding season is a delicate time for them. It’s even hard to spot them around this time. 

During the off-breeding season, sapsuckers will camp in forest edges, open woodlands, and used semi-open habitats.

The Lifestyle of Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

Like most birds, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are diurnal. They’re active during most of the day, mostly foraging for food. Though it’s typical for them to feed by themselves, they join other birds during winter. In these groups, they mix into flocks with other insect-eating birds. 

I have been birding for years but have never spotted a yellow-bellied woodpecker on the ground. When they aren’t perched on the tallest tree, they dart through the woods in short sways. 

What Do Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers Eat: Diet and Feeding Habits

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker relies on sap as their primary source of food. It’s well adapted to drilling sap-rich trees to get the juice.

Maple trees are a favorite for these birds because they have the sweetest sap. But any tree with thin bark and a reasonably sweet sap will do. Their other favorite trees to lap up sap include:

  • Aspen
  • Paper birch
  • Red hickory
  • Popular
  • Holly
  • Eastern Hemlock
  • Magnolia
  • Pine
  • Elm

Horizontal Sap Wells, Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker’s Life Line

They create two types of sap wells: round and rectangular. The round sap wells are narrow, extending deep into the tree and not wide. The rectangular sap wells are shallow but wider.

This meticulous and organized bird creates a series of horizontal sap wells, half an inch apart. They then wait for the sap to rise. Meanwhile, they brace their stiff tails against the tree’s bark and lean back in a typical woodpecker pose.

They’re very mindful of their sap wells and tend to them often. Because if not, they will scab over. Besides, other birds like warblers, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers will also raid their sap wells if they don’t take precautions.

Once the sap wells fill up, the sap-sucker uses its hairy, spoon-shaped tongue to draw out the sap. They don’t suck up the sap but slurp it up. This shows the word “sucker” in their name is a misnomer.

A yellow belly is a leisurely dinner. It’ll lick the sap out from one hole to another without haste. After feasting, it’ll leave the wells to other birds.

When they come back after a few days, they will drill another series of sap wells just above the previous ones, and so on.

The Supplements

Occasionally, and when they aren’t feeding on sap,  they eat berries, fruits, buds, nuts, seeds, and insects.

Like other woodpeckers, they also glean insects, spiders, and other bugs from the bark of trees.

Their sources of food change depending on what is available. A higher percentage of their diet comprises sap. They eat fruits, berries, and seeds throughout the year, mainly in the winter.

They also eat cambium and bast from the holes they drill, especially during winter.

Courtship, Nesting and Breeding Behaviors of Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

courtship, nesting and breeding behaviors of yellow-bellied sapsuckers

Sphyrapicus various is a monogamous bird and will stay together during the nesting period. And to raise their hatchlings, they will keep them in a nest for about four weeks before they can leave the nest for the first time.

Yellow-bellied suckers often return to the same breeding tree. This is an indication that a pair will most likely pair up again in subsequent breeding seasons. 

A Life of Complex Courtships

Yellow-bellied suckers are a great example of how birds can be entertaining to watch. The complex courtship ritual they go through is just amazing. They dance, sing, and drum on dead wood or metal. And it’s never complete without spectacular aerial displays to impress a potential mate.

If you would like to see one of these amazing creatures in action, observe them during the breeding season.

If you are keen enough, you will notice the following forms of courtship expression displayed by both sexes:

  • Dancing and Displays: In the breeding season, the male bird dances to woo his mate. He displays his yellow underpart and red throat. He will also drag his breast up and down repeatedly while half-starting his wings.
  • Vocalizations: Breeding calls sound like full-intensity squeals delivered in sets of five or more—kwee-urk, kwee-urk.

Their intimate notes are a series of week-week, warp-warp, and sometimes, quirk-quirk

  • Drumming: The sapsuckers drum more intensely in spring during breeding to establish territories and attract mates. 

Sap-sippers like to drum on objects that echo loudly, such as metals, dead bark, and stumps. The drumming begins rapidly and draws out; drr-a-da, da-da, da.

Females also drum, but less often than males.

  • Wing noises: It’s typical for sap-sippers to fly silently. They will, however, ruffle their wings when looking for a mate. 

The Nesting Hassles of Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker

How can you single out a breeding pair? Courting birds constantly touch their bills and preen at each other.

After the courtship, the new couple must find a suitable nesting site. They’ll do this before the breeding season (between April and July).

Males usually arrive at the breeding ground first, to establish breeding grounds.

A sapsucker prefers to nest in large cavities, usually between 6 and 60 feet above the ground. They always select live deciduous plants, especially those with dead heartwood. They may also nest in hollow logs and even in man-made structures.

As soon as they have selected a favorite spot, they begin the excavation process. The male does most of the chipping, with the female helping occasionally.

The birds excavate holes for about 15–30 minutes daily for 30 days. That’s not all. The male also performs courtship flight displays to strengthen their bond and form an attachment to the nest. And upon the arrival of their chicks, the new parents will still continue hollowing.

A Domineering Female During Breeding

While clutch sizes are larger in the northern part of the range, female yellow-bellies lay about four to seven eggs on average. The eggs are white, oval, and spotless. It is common for the female to be domineering during the egg-laying stage, even chasing the male from the nest.

After the female has laid the eggs, both parents take turns incubating them. But on hotter days, they will incubate the eggs for shorter periods.

In about 10–13 days, fragile, blind, featherless chicks hatch. Yellow belly parents are excellent at what they do. Both parents will warm the hatchlings in turns for ten days, paying special attention to the youngest since they lose heat quickly. The sap-sipper parents will feed their young sap, fruits, and insects.

The Fledglings

After 25 to 29 days, hatchlings will leave their nest for the first time as fledglings. While outside, their parents teach them sap-sucking habits. Fledglings stay in their parents’ nests for about two weeks before seeking independence. Young ones become sexually mature at one year.

Sap sippers raise one brood per year. Over the years, they may nest in the same tree but rarely in the same nesting cavity.

How to Find the Yellow-bellied Woodpecker

how to find the yellow-bellied woodpecker

Even for birders with the sharpest eyes, locating the red-throated sapsucker is challenging. First, they blend in well with the woods because of their plumage. And second, they are migratory and only present at certain times of the year.

But if you are within their range, it’s easy to find them, especially if you track them on their favorite sweet sap trees.

The best place to look for yellow-bellied woodpeckers is in young deciduous forests. Watch out for their separate, neatly arranged sap wells in the woods. If they are not tending to their sap wells, they may hunt insects or pluck berries and seeds from the highest branches.

If the sap wells look relatively fresh, the culprit was there not too long ago. This gives you an idea of where to look.

In spring, listen closely for their distinctive stuttered drumming and mewing calls. It is common for them to stay still while calling, so look carefully at the trees around you if you hear them. You may miss spotting it because of their black and white pied back, which camouflages well with their surroundings.

Migration Patterns of Yellow-Bellied Woodpeckers

Birds migrate short-to-long distances for two reasons: food and nesting. The same applies to the sap-sippers.

And, of all the woodpeckers in eastern North America, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is the only completely migratory woodpecker.

Males arrive at the breeding grounds a week to two before females come for the ride.

During the winter months (September through early October), these birds migrate south to their wintering grounds in Mexico or Central America.

Spectacular Migration and Roosting…a must Watch

Yellow-bellied migration is quite spectacular. They migrate in loose slurps of up to seven birds during the day. As they soar at a great height, they constantly utter wistful cries between soaring and flapping their wings.

At dusk, they land at high speed with incredible twists and turns, settling on the highest treetops. And as if obeying powerful commands, the entire group and the place become eerie silent for some minutes.

Afterward, they erupt into loud voices as they move to the central parts of the largest trees in search of abandoned trunk cavities.

They often roost in groups; for safety and warmth.

This roosting ritual is quite spectacular, and many birders and wildlife photographers often stake out strategic positions to witness it.

Tips on How to Attract Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers to Your Feeder

tips on how to attract yellow-bellied sapsuckers to your feeder

Any birder’s ultimate fantasy would be to get this rare woodpecker—only seen from a distance—to their feeder for a close encounter. Perhaps you fancy watching them drill and eat from the sap well. It all starts with attracting them to your yard. 

Yellow-bellied woodpeckers love sap and suet. You can use these feeds to attract them to your backyard, but it is not so effective.

They rarely visit bird feeders, but fancy hummingbird feeders and peanut butter suet.  

But the surest way to attract them is to provide what they love most: sap and fruits. So, plant sweet-sapped trees alongside fruit-producing trees in your backyard. 

Because this bird is naturally shy of humans, you may have difficulty convincing it to stay on your property. 

Tree Damage Caused by Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

Did you know most people have a love-hate relationship with yellow-bellied woodpeckers? And that some even consider it a pest?

They drill sap wells into trees to get at the tasty liquid inside. And as they do so, they cause exposed holes in trees. These holes don’t damage the tree, but bacteria and fungi can enter and cause wood decay.

It’s even worse if they choose to sap-feed on small trees. Because of damage to their delicate bark, they will die prematurely from girdling.

Controversies in Yellow-Bellied Tree Damage

The yellow-bellied sapsucker can be attractive and entertaining. But there are some good reasons to be concerned about the sap wells on your property.

On the one hand, studies have shown that these birds feed on already damaged trees. A sap well’s damage may be a sign of an underlying issue. On the other hand, other studies refute the claim that sapsucker birds prefer weakened trees.

These studies leave most property owners in a dilemma. They don’t know whether the sap wells are causing the problem. Or whether the tree has an undiagnosed problem.

Predators and Threats to Yellow-Bellied Sap Sippers

The Sphyrapicus varius has few natural predators, including raccoons, birds of prey, and snakes.

Other threats to yellow-bellied woodpeckers include cats and windows. Glass windows are a death trap for most birds, flying directly to them at high speed.

Habitat destruction, particularly logging in forests, also threatens their survival. 

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is a Double Keystone Species

yellow-bellied sapsucker is a double keystone species

The yellow-bellied woodpecker is not a mean tree-drilling bird. This small-sized bird does a lot of good for the ecosystem, despite its size.

One of the key services they provide is food. They create sap wells in the forests, which other birds, bats, insects, squirrels, and porcupines raid for the energy-giving sap.

Nesting cavities is the other great service they provide. Each year, the yellow-bellied woodpeckers construct new nesting cavities, which they use once and abandon after the breeding.

Other birds, reptiles, and small mammals are happy to use the empty cavities. The new tenants may use them as they wish. They could use for nesting, hiding from predators, and as safe refuge during chilly winters and storms.

I can’t imagine the cascading effect if we eliminate this double keystone species from the ecosystem.  

Fun and Interesting Facts about the Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker

  • The yellow-bellied woodpecker is the only migratory woodpecker in eastern North America.
  • They are the only woodpeckers in the eastern US to drill horizontal rows of sap wells on trees.
  • A yellow-bellied sapsucker’s primary diet is sap from maple, birch, and pine trees.
  • A group of yellow-bellied sapsuckers is called a slurp.
  • Yellow-bellied sap sippers excavate their nests themselves—although the male bird gets the most credit.
  • They classify as Least Concern—they are not threatened or near threatened — in the IUCN Red List category.

Frequently Asked Questions FAQs

Question: Do Woodpeckers Migrate?

Answer: Some do, but most don’t. Out of 20 species the woodpecker in North America, only seven of these species are migratory. 
Woodpeckers who migrate include:
• Yellow-bellied Woodpecker
• Red-headed Woodpecker
• Red-breasted woodpecker
• Red-naped woodpecker
• Williamson’s sapsucker
Lewis’s woodpecker
Northern flicker
Besides the yellow-bellied woodpecker who migrates the furthest, most of these birds don’t need to undertake arduous migratory journeys.

Question: Why is it Called a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker?

Answer: This bird got its name from its unique color and feeding habit. For the unique color, this bird has a yellow underbelly, though it is hardly visible. As for its feeding habit, it mainly feeds on sap wells which it drills on trees. It then waits for the sap to ooze out and then sap with the insects caught in it, using brush-like tongues.

Question: Where Do You Find a Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker?

Answer: The best place to find yellow-bellied woodpeckers is where they like to hang out. These cavity-nesting birds mostly inhabit hardwood and coniferous forests. It’s an avid sap-sucker, which means you can look for them on sweet-sapped trees. Maple, birch, and pine trees are some of the best places to look for them.

A Shy but a Remarkable Bird

Yellow-bellied woodpeckers are genuinely remarkable birds, and their activities support other organisms.

They have black and white plumage, a red crest, and a black and white pied back. Males have red throats, while females have white throats.

A surefire way to identify this bird is by a band of white on its wings. I hope you will always remember this.

As you enter forests within their range, you’re welcomed by neat rows of horizontal sap wells. Not damaging the tree, these sap wells feed various birds, small mammals, and insects.

They also excavate nesting cavities, which later become prime properties for other birds, reptiles, and even some small mammals.

Yellow-bellied woodpeckers are shy birds that can be hard to spot in the wild unless you know where to look and identify them. Which I hope this article has provided. But if you find yourself in an area where they’re present… Pause for a moment and appreciate this incredible little bird.


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