Test Your Knowledge - January

Holes resulting from sapsucker feeding
Sapsucker damage on a Bradford pear
Janet McLeod Scott, ©2008 HGIC

Yes, these holes are the result of sapsucker damage.

When this kind of damage is seen on a tree trunk or branch, homeowners often suspect that insect borers are the culprits. However, two signs indicate when damage is caused by sapsuckers. First, the small holes in the bark are neatly arranged in a pattern of horizontal, vertical or diagonal rows. With borer damage, there may be only one hole, rarely more than a few holes, and the holes that are present are randomly spaced. The second clue that sapsuckers are causing the damage is that the holes are no deeper than a sapsucker's beak, whereas borers create tunnels.

Sapsuckers are members of the woodpecker family. The yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius varius) is the primary sapsucker found in South Carolina and is present nearly year-round, breeding and having young in the spring.

While sapsuckers will eat insects, they make holes in bark in order to eat the sap that flows from the opening or to feed it to their young. Trees that are most often attacked are pine, birch, maple, spruce and fruit trees, but other tree species may be damaged. Most damage is done between February and June, which corresponds to the breeding season and territory establishment.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (male) on pecan
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (male) on pecan
James Solomon, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

In general, sapsuckers rarely cause serious damage to trees because the holes are shallow. However, sometimes enough holes are formed so as to girdle an area of the tree or the entire trunk, killing part or all of the tree. In addition, a particular tree may be revisited by the same sapsucker for multiple years with enough damage resulting that the tree is weakened and thus more susceptible to disease, drought and insect pests.

If a sapsucker is damaging your favorite shade tree, some options for controlling the problem are available. However, it is important to know that sapsuckers are very persistent and very territorial. The greatest opportunity for the following control measures to work is if they are applied as soon as the problem begins.

  1. Wrap the damaged area in burlap, 3/4-inch plastic mesh netting or 1/4-inch hardware cloth as soon as the bird is discovered drilling on the tree. Remove the wrapping before summer.
  2. Smear sticky bird repellents such as Tanglefoot®, 4-The-Birds®, and Roost-No-More® on the tree trunk. The materials will not trap the birds in place, but rather result in a tacky feel that the birds do not like.
  3. Scaring the bird with whirling toy pinwheels, balloons with eyes drawn on them, strips of aluminum and aluminum pie plates has limited effectiveness. Use of an artificial owl, cat or snake is generally considered ineffective.
  4. Loud noises repeated over time may cause the birds to leave.

Importantly, sapsuckers are classified as migratory, nongame birds and as such are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Lethal control measures are not allowed without a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which can be obtained only with justifiable reason and upon the recommendation of USDA-APHIS Animal Damage Control personnel.

For more information on sapsuckers and their control, see E-139, Woodpeckers.

Janet McLeod Scott
HGIC Extension Agent

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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.