Sapsuckers damage trees

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By Susan Brown, County Extension

Have you ever noticed quarter-inch holes neatly spaced in horizontal or vertical rows on tree trunks or on the branches? Many people misdiagnose this problem suspecting borer damage. The holes made by borers appear more randomly and are not neatly arranged in a row or pattern.
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is the culprit. This bird is a member of the American woodpecker family of migratory birds. The identifying field markings of the adult birds are a crescent on the breast, pale yellow belly, white wing stripe, and a crimson crown. The male also has a crimson chin and throat, distinguishing him from the female whose chin and throat are white.
This group of woodpeckers pecks holes in trees and larger woody shrubs, feeding on the bark, sap and insects drawn to the sap. Sapsuckers tend to rely more on plant sap than insects for its diet. Typically, these holes are not harmful, but some trees or shrubs may die if holes are extensive enough to girdle the trunk or stem.
This woodpecker can attack a wide variety of woody trees but prefers maple, pecan, birch, pine, elm and oaks.
They are also attracted to old sapsucker damage. These birds may return to the same tree each season. A persistent sapsucker may choose to feed repeatedly on a given tree, which can cause damage that is more extensive and leaves the tree vulnerable to other problems, such as insects or decay fungi. Occasionally sapsuckers will also damage other wood, such as wood house siding, but this is not common.
In early spring, the sapsucker will test many trees when selecting nesting sites. The bird makes several sample drillings before selecting the tree it prefers. These trees, because of quantity or sugar content of the sap, are visited several times a day for the rest of the season and sometimes are used as a food source for several years.
Homeowners should watch trees for the appearance of new damage. Woodpeckers are persistent and can be difficult to deter from their pecking sites. Using multiple methods of control could improve your success in driving them away. Wrapping damaged areas with a loose, coarse material such as burlap will help to deter the birds. After the feeding period, the burlap should be removed.
Lightweight netting can be used as a covering on shrubs. Visual frightening devices such as hanging pie pans, reflective Mylar strips and fake owls that display movement have had some success at scaring sapsuckers away from a particular tree or area.
Sapsuckers are protected by state and federal law by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so lethal control is not an option. This includes using any type of toxicants or shooting. For the most part, sapsucker damage is part of living with nature, something to be tolerated as an occasional inconvenience or even enjoyed as part of natural wildlife activity. For the most part, sapsucker damage is part of living with nature.
SusanBrown is a horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail susan_brown@ncsu.edu.