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Troup extension agent: Yellow-bellied sapsucker not just an insult

By Brian Maddy

Contributing columnist

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When I was a kid watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, some of the cartoon characters would call another character a “yellow-bellied sapsucker.”

Fast forward 40 years and I discovered that there really is a “yellow-bellied sapsucker,” and it’s a woodpecker. I think they were using it as a derogatory term toward cowardly characters.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker that measures from about 7 to 8 inches in length and their wingspan stretches from 13 to 16 inches. Their breast and upper belly is yellow, backs are black and wings are black with white bars. Their head is also black with white stripes down the side with a red forehead and crown. They are very striking birds.

It’s what sapsuckers do that gets everyone’s attention. Their percussion-like, self-sharpening beaks drill neat, horizontal holes around the circumference of over 250 species of trees and vines.

Woodpeckers have built-in safety glasses called a nictitating membrane that closes a millisecond before contact with wood, protecting the eyes. Their brains are small and well-situated in the skull to prevent headaches.

These neat little holes fill with sap, attracting insects. The yellow-bellied sapsuckers have favorite trees and will return to extricate the insects with their long, sticky tongues.

They will keep returning to those trees to maintain the holes to keep dinner coming. You can usually spot a Stuart pecan in an orchard by the sapsucker holes. They prefer Stuarts to other varieties of pecans. Apple, pear, maples and some pine species are also considered good choices.

How does a tree respond to these injuries? The tree increases sap flow and a callous will form over the hole. This is why a sapsucker has to return to keep the hole open.

Disease can enter the opening, but most trees can survive the damage. If the holes are so symmetrical in pattern in several rows, it is possible to girdle the tree. With that being said, my Stuart pecans bear much evidence of sapsucker damage and are over 75 years old.

You can prevent damage on the lower trunk by adding protective screening, but that won’t discourage them from attacking limbs higher up. They can hop around on vertical surfaces easily because of their unique toe arrangement, two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards. This is called zygodactyl feet. The tendons in their toes and distinctive leg muscles allow them to move effortlessly on trees.

Putting up an owl decoy might work in discouraging them if you move them every day. Keep in mind that woodpeckers are protected under the North American Migratory Bird Act, and it is a federal offense to kill a woodpecker or disturb a woodpecker den.

Nonlethal control strategies must be implemented before permission will be granted to implement lethal control. As was said before, damage from yellow-bellied sapsuckers rarely results in the death of a tree.

There are two woodpeckers species protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the ivory-billed woodpecker. The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct, but there are reports of sightings in Arkansas and Florida. Their home was the southeast hardwood bottomland hardwood forest.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is making a slow come back as long leaf forests are re-established. Long leaf pine trees once comprised 60 million acres of southeastern forests. Less than 2 percent remain.

If you enjoy learning about nature, consider becoming a Georgia Master Naturalist Extension volunteer. It’s approximately 48 hours of hands-on activities and information. It covers many topics from water to wildlife to forestry. Call for more information and the registration packet.

What’s going on in Extension?

Become a Master Naturalist: The program begins March 31. It will run through June 6. Cost of the program is $175. Call the Extension office for more information and the registration packet.

March 11: Small Ruminant Training, FAMACHA training and nutrition; and

March 24: Reproduction, lambing, marketing, hoof trimming. Call Susan James, Meriwether County Extension, 706-672-4235, for registration information.

March 15: TCCA Meeting, 7 p.m. meal, $6. Program begins at 7:30 p.m. Guest speaker: Mark Slay, “Managing your fertilizer needs.”

March 18: Equipment maintenance workshop, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Ag Center.

March 23: Farm to market workshop. Become certified; call the Extension office for more details.

Tree seedlings can be ordered from the Georgia Forestry Commission, 706-845-4122.

Brian Maddy is the ANR Agent for Troup County Extension. The Troup County Extension office is located at 114 Church St. in LaGrange and may be reached at 706-883-1675, Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–noon and 15 p.m.