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Adult yellow-bellied sapsucker, Photo by Greg Lavaty of Houston.

The sapsucker is a pretty bird that drills holes in rows, columns or rings around the trunks or limbs of your trees. They really like young live oaks but will attack many tree species. Do they hurt anything? You bet they do. This woodpecker, also called red-headed sapsucker, is lovely to look at but a real menace. The damage can kill limbs or entire trunks. There is a solution - help get the tree out of stress. That's done by applying the Sick Tree Treatment with the first and most important step being the dramatic exposure of the root flare.

Juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker, Photo by Greg Lavaty of Houston.


Damage on live oak tree.

Damage on young live oak.

Damage on ginkgo.


Damage on young live oak.


Damage on bald cypress.

This sapsucker had a little too much to drink
before he started drilling.

Sapsucker damage on ginkgo trunk

Damage done by squirrels or other rodents.

When a tree is in stress, sugars in the sap concentrate to help fight infirmities and to help repair injuries. Certain animals like the sapsucker can detect it and attack those areas. The birds like the sweet sap and drill the holes in tidy rows so the sap flows in and is easy to suck up. Other animals will also take advantage of the sweet concentration of sap, including butterflies, other birds and squirrels. We know this from observation and common sense as well as from the research at the USDA's Northwest Forest Experiment Station. This theory is also backed up by Lawrence Kilhan in his book Woodpeckers of Eastern North America.

The following are quotes from the book in the chapter on Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers - under "Relation to Wounded Trees".

Sapsuckers feed on a wide variety of trees. Regardless of the tree utilized, it is not always clear why they concentrate on a few, leaving others untouched. In the summers of 1962 and 1963, I found three places in Lyme that seemed to provide answers. One centered on a row of paper birches bordering a dirt road and badly bruised by snow plows.

Practically all of the birches with sapsucker holes were ones with scars. Other birches of similar size and adjacent to them, but unwounded, had none. Two feeding trees stood back from the road. Although untouched by the plow, they had extensive injuries of unknown origin below their bands of drill holes.

I found sapsuckers making small bands [of holes] on healthy birches nearby. These bands were at the same height as the main feeding holes, but drilling was casual, as if not more than a displacement activity.

I watched sapsuckers where hundreds of unwanted or weed trees had been girdled by foresters. Most of the trees in one area, not much affected by being girdled the previous winter, still had canopies. Trees in another region, in contrast, in a second summer after girdling, were either dead or dying by August. The dying trees were the ones that attracted the sapsuckers, which drilled just above the girdles.

The three patterns, encountered on a single species, show that the drilling of sapsuckers is related to the underlying physiology of the tree.

Sapsuckers obtain theirs [sap] by repeated wounding. This leads to an increased flow of nutrients, an effort of the tree to repair the injury that nutrients will accumulate above a girdle, as indicated by a layer of thickened wood.

To solve the problem splash some hydrogen peroxide on the wounds, then smear on some homemade Tree Trunk Goop that is one third each - compost, soft rock phosphate and natural diatomaceous earth. Then apply the Sick Tree Treatment to improve the health of the tree so the sapsucker won’t be attracted.

To help keep these beautiful pests from damaging your trees in the first place, use the gentle organic fertilizers only, none of the high nitrogen synthetic stuff, make sure the soil is aerated rather than compacted, avoid physical damage to trunks and limbs and maintain the proper soil moisture. The most important thing is to make sure the root flare is kept well exposed and not covered with soil or mulch. Arborists can do this work with the Air Spade or Air Knife. Homeowners can do the work with hand tools and brushes if great care is taken to avoid damaging the flare while the work is done.

The damage shown below is a different pest. The bleeding and random holes indicates borer beetle larvae.


Applying orange oil at 50% dilution will kill the borer insects. The Sick Tree Treatment will prevent their return.

Here are some websites with additional information on sapsuckers:


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