The Red-breasted Sapsucker Guards Its Sap Wells

by Larry on February 8, 2011

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) photos by Larry Jordan

I found this Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) at Lema Ranch the other day as I was checking on my Bluebird Trail there.  As I photographed this bird and followed its movements around the oak tree I discovered something about sapsuckers that I didn’t know.  Sapsuckers tend and defend their sap wells.

I assumed that this bird was feeding on something, either arthropods or sap, but as other birds landed in the oak tree, it would always chase them off.  To the point of making sure that any other birds landing in this tree, left this tree.  I watched this behavior for about thirty minutes, thinking that possibly this bird just didn’t want to share a food rich resource.

When I began to research this phenomenon, I discovered that sapsuckers “create elaborate systems of sap wells and maintain this resource throughout the day to ensure sap production. Because of this large investment in maintenance, sapsuckers defend wells from other sapsuckers, as well as from other species.1

If you look at the photo at the top of this post, it looks like a fresh sap well directly in front of the bird’s beak.  I think that this bird had sap wells all over this tree and on this very warm day it was maintaining those sap wells and keeping all other birds way.

According to Birds of North America Online, “other species make use of sapsucker wells to supplement their food intake with sap or with insects attracted to the sap. Rufous Hummingbirds, for example, appear to be closely associated, ecologically, with both Red-breasted and Red-naped sapsuckers; they place their nests near sap wells, follow sapsuckers in their daily movements, and may even time their migration to coincide with that of sapsuckers so they can feed off the sap wells.1”   Who woulda thought?

Back in the summer of ’09 I wrote a post on a Juvenile Nuttall’s Woodpecker that was foraging in an oak tree and an Anna’s Hummingbird that was feeding out of the sap wells in that tree.  You can see the multitude of sap wells in this live oak tree as the hummingbird feeds.

It’s amazing the things you can discover while researching birds and their behaviors.  It is one of the things I love about bird blogging.

To see more great bird photos, come on over to World Bird Wednesday and bring your own bird photos!

References: 1 Birds of North America Online

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