Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Damage

— Written By and last updated by Nicole Vernon
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Have you noticed strange markings on your elm, apple or dogwood tree? The yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, is leaving a trail. It is the only member of the woodpecker family that pecks a series of horizontal ¼ inch holes in the bark of trees. The holes are uniform in neat little rows. The holes are spaced close together along limbs and trunks of trees. This creates interest for those who are not familiar with the damage. In some cases, severe damage may occur and cause the bark to have a lattice appearance as seen in the picture here. While insects are a large part of the sapsucker’s diet, they also like to sip sap from live trees and have been known to eat the cambium and inner bark.

Photo of Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.

Photo: Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are more than 250 species of woody plants that sapsuckers may attack. These include maple, pine, elm, apple, and dogwood to name a few. Sapsuckers are attracted to trees infected with heart rot fungi. This helps in the decaying process of the tree and enables the birds to excavate a nest hole. Sapsuckers can be seen in spring testing trees by pecking sample holes as they select the perfect tree for them. The sapsuckers may visit a tree multiple times a day throughout the season and come back year after year.

Picture of a dogwood tree with severe damage caused by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Dogwood Tree: Severe damage from the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Usually trees recover from minor damage. However, excessive holes can allow entry for unwanted pests such as insects and decay fungi. This can lead to secondary damage of the tree causing recovery unlikely. Control sapsuckers can be somewhat of a challenge. They are woodpeckers and are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Lethal control requires a permit. Therefore, strategies to help deter sapsuckers are encouraged. Burlap can be wrapped around the tree and may work well. It may also help steer them to a neighbor’s tree. The burlap should not be left on the tree for long periods of time since other damage may occur to the tree. Shiny items such as reflective tape, old CDs. and aluminum pie pans can also be hung from trees to deter the birds. The birds are spooked when the sunlight is reflected from them. Various sounds and hawk or owl decoys can be placed nearby. Decoys need to be moved around every two or three days to look real. Lastly, the tree could be covered with plastic netting.

Photo of old and new holes pecked by a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Extension Factsheet attach_file

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

This factsheet describes the biology of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, a woodpecker that may cause damage to woody plants.