What's in a Name? The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Dec 26, 2017

Credit Kelly Colgan Azar bit.ly/2kB4rCJ / bit.ly/1dGcPd3

The other day I visited a friend who has several old apple and pear trees in his yard. As is true for most older fruit trees on the Cape, these have numerous regular rows or rings of small holes drilled around their trunks, as if someone had taken target practice at them with a miniature machine gun.

I learned long ago that such distinctive rows of holes were the work of a bird with one of my favorite common names: The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.

Who wouldn’t love a bird with a name like that? Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. It sounds like a euphemism for an obscenity: ‘You Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, you!” Or one of those phrases that the Zippy comic strip character compulsively repeats: “Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker! Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!  Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!” Or a song from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: [to the tune and rhythm of “Tit-Willow”]: Sap-SUCK-er, Sap-SUCK-er, Sap-SUCK-er.”

Anyway, I originally thought the name was based on an erroneous superstition, similar to that of the whip-poor-will. Do you know that story? Well, one of the common folk-names for the whip-poor-will was “goatsucker.” It was based on an ancient folktale, going back at least to Aristotle, who wrote, “Goatsuckers, flying to the udders of she-goats, sucked them… They say that the udder withers when the bird has sucked at it, and that the goat goes blind.”

Well, pure hogwash, of course, but if early ornithologists were not always accurate, they were at least colorful.

But I digress. Back to sapsuckers. As I said, I thought that their common name was also based on a myth, and that sapsuckers, like other woodpeckers, drilled holes in trees to find insect food, not sap. But “sapsucker,” it turns out, is actually a fact-based and accurate name. These birds regularly do drill these ring-like rows of holes, called “sap wells,” into the wood of fruit and other trees such as yellow birch and maple, and then suck the sap that flows from them. But there is still a mystery attached to this bird, and it’s this: the prevalence of the characteristic "sap wells" on nearly every old fruit tree I have ever encountered on the Cape would suggest that the birds are fairly abundant here. Yet in all my years of birding here, I have never seen a sapsucker, yellow-bellied or otherwise.

On the Cape it has historically been, at best, an uncommon migrant in the fall and a “rare but regular” migrant in the spring.  Mark Faherty, who does the weekly Bird Report on this station, tells me that a small number of sapsuckers stay through the winter, but none are here in the summer. He says that the best place to see them is at the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary in October, feeding on the Siberian elms someone planted there decades ago, so I guess I’ll have to look for them next fall. 

By the way, the “yellow-bellied” part of its name is also factually descriptive. The bird does indeed have a pale-yellow stomach, but it’s hardly its distinguishing feature. Much more prominent is its red crown and its white wing patch – so why not call it the “Scarlet-Crested Sapsucker” or the “White-Winged Sapsucker?” And for that matter, how did the term “yellow-bellied” come to connote cowardly behavior? But I’m afraid that leads us down another etymological rabbit-hole, best left for another day.