Dealing With Woodpecker and Sapsucker Tree Problems

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus
Nick Saunders /All Canada Photos/Getty Images

What is a Woodpecker?

Many woodpeckers (family Picidae), some also called sapsuckers (family Sphyrapicus) are tree bark feeding birds with unique clinging feet, long tongues, and specialized beaks. These beaks are designed to help with communicating the possession of territory to rivals and locating and accessing insects. This is done mostly by rapid drumming and pecking noisily on tree trunks with their beaks.

The insect-eating woodpecker has a long tongue, in many cases as long as the woodpecker itself, that can be quickly extended forward to capture insects from the inner and outer bark. Woodpeckers tend to explore decaying cavities on trees and spots that have active insect activity. They do not feed on tree sap like their sap-sucking cousins.

How a Woodpecker Feeds

So, a woodpecker searches surfaces of tree trunks and branches for wood boring beetles, carpenter ants, and other insects. The pecking style they use for feeding is very different than their territorial drumming which is done mainly in the spring of the year.

When looking for insects, only a few pecks at a time are made and then the bird explores the resulting hole with its specialized bill and tongue. This behavior continues until an insect is found or the bird is satisfied that one is not there. Then the woodpecker may hop a few inches away and peck at another place.

The bark holes created by this feeding activity often occurs randomly as the bird explores with pecking up, down and around a tree trunk.

In most cases, a woodpecker prefers dead wood rather than sound wood to dig for food or excavate nest cavities. Since most trees contain some dead wood, the woodpeckers' activity doesn't necessarily mean the tree is being harmed by the bird.

This pecking style, for the most part, does not harm the tree but can be a problem when a bird decides to visit wood siding, wooden eaves, and window frames. Woodpeckers can become destructive to property, especially wood cabins located near a wildland/urban interface.

Sapsuckers Vs. Woodpeckers

Not all woodpeckers seek insects for their primary food. Sap-sucking birds are woodpeckers that prefer sap but will eat and feed insects that are attracted to the sap to their young during the breeding season.

The most common sapsucker in North America (and the most destructive) is the American yellow-bellied sapsucker. The bird is one of four true sapsuckers in the family Sphyrapicus. It spends summers in Canada and the Northeastern United States and migrates to the southern states in winter.

The United States Forest Service (USFS) suggests that the American yellow-bellied sapsucker will attack and kill trees and seriously degrade wood quality. This sapsucker is a serious tree pest, it is migratory and effects trees throughout  eastern North America. A USFS study concludes that a sapsucker will kill red maple nearly 40 percent and birch nearly 50 percent

Woodpecker Tree Damage

Insect eating woodpeckers are less of a problem than sap eating woodpeckers when managing a landscape or forest.

They tend to only feed and nest in dead wood and are generally considered harmless to a tree.

Sapsuckers, on the other hand, attack living wood and often return to the tree to increase the size of the holes for fresh sap. Repeated attacks of feeding sapsuckers can kill a tree by girdling, which occurs when a ring of bark around the trunk is severely injured. Certain tree species (birch and maple) are particularly susceptible to dying after being damaged by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Wood decay or stain fungi and bacteria may enter through the feeding wounds.

In the United States, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are listed and protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.Taking, killing, or possessing this species is illegal without a permit.

How to Discourage a Feeding Sapsucker

To discourage sapsuckers from feeding on your yard tree, wrap hardware cloth or burlap around the area of attack.

To protect buildings and other outside personal property, place lightweight plastic bird-type netting over the area.

Visual control using toy plastic twirlers fastened to the eaves, aluminum foil or brightly colored plastic strips are somewhat successful in repelling birds by movement and/or reflection. Loud noises can also help but may be inconvenient to maintain over an effective period of time. 

You can also smear on a sticky repellent such as Tanglefoot Bird Repellent (buy from Amazon). Tree Guard Deer Repellent is also said to discourage feeding when sprayed on the tapped area. Remember that they may choose another nearby tree for future tapping. It may be better to sacrifice the tapped and already damaged tree in favor of the loss of another tree due to future tapping damage.