We get a lot of questions and hear a lot of untruths about sapsuckers and trees.

There are four species of sapsucker, and these small woodpeckers are unusual in that they are migratory. As their name implies, they feed chiefly on sap from living trees. Tree death, especially for birch or alder, is often blamed on sapsuckers. While it is possible for repeated visits from sapsuckers to cause death or decline, it is important to view this in the right context. When cut, a healthy tree begins to bleed sap. It will soon heal over this wound and go on with its life. Trees that are weak, sick, or stressed out tend to bleed much more profusely than trees that are healthy. This results in much more frequent sapsucker visits.

In the forests of northern Saskatchewan, sapsuckers help to maintain healthy birch ecosystems by quickly eliminating dying, sick, or diseased trees. In gardens and cities, however, where food sources are limited, a healthy birch may be visited over and over again by many birds until it is eventually weakened and begins to suffer. More frequently, however, birch trees in gardens and cities are stressed from pollution, lack of water, and general abuse. The sapsucker visiting is most frequently a sign of inadequate water or care rather than being the cause of death in and of itself. If you find a sapsucker repeatedly visiting your tree, it could mean (A) it's the only suitable tree in the area or more likely (B) that your tree really needs more water and less stress!

Further to this, the running of sap is a major attractant to insects, which then feed other birds. Hummingbirds returning from migration are known to frequent areas where sapsuckers are common, and will occasionally feed on the sap that flows from the holes they carve. Warblers and orioles are also known to do this. Trees with soft bark and ample sap are the favorite food of sapsuckers. Nearly all species of birch and maple are acceptable trees but they will also use certain species of spruce and sometimes hemlock, cottonwood, aspen, mountain ash or pine. Sapsuckers play an important role here and should not be persecuted or blamed for killing trees. The red-naped sapsucker may be found in the Cypress Hills but the one you are most likely to see is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which also feeds on insects. It is unusual in that it prefers to excavate a nest in a living tree, most often trembling aspen.