Bird Bits: A slurp of sapsuckers

A sapsucker eyes a row of holes that were pecked in the bark of a tree. These birds lap at the troughs, which fill with sap, with a stiff-haired tongue. They also eat bugs that get trapped in the sticky goo.

A red-breasted sapsucker was hawking for insects recently above the Community Garden at Montana Creek. Hawking is a hunting technique: from a perch make a dart into the air, stall, snatch a winged insect in a beak and twirl back to the perch.


This sapsucker returned with a mouthful of wings, plus a green caterpillar.

Now, visualize a medium woodpecker with a lot of color. Imagine it turning, and as it does, it flashes the full spread of its glory. Stiff, pointed tail feathers function as a balance prop, perfectly suited for hunting insects under the bark of trees. The tail and the primary feathers are splayed open like fingers. White rump and matching white wing patches flare. All of the bird’s head, with the exception of a white moustache, is a bright, blood red color that seems to drip down the chest, before fading to grey. The belly has a yellow cast. On the rest of the body, there lingers a black and white checkerboard pattern.

Red-breasted sapsuckers drill round holes horizontally around the trunks of deciduous trees. When the birds find a particularly good food source, the holes are widened into troughs that fill with sap from the wounded tree. A sapsucker laps up sap at the troughs with its stiff haired tongue, and will also eat bugs that get trapped in the attractive sap. There is the chance for a two-for-one; Rufous hummingbirds hover to sip at the sweet sap well when the sapsucker is absent.

Male red-breasted sapsuckers have a unique broken drumming rhythm … five taps that gradually slow, a hesitation followed often by a double tap finish.

• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at


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