“Why you … you yella-bellied sapsucker!”
I’m sure many of you read that and “heard” Yosemite Sam’s voice in your head. But yellow-bellied sapsuckers are real creatures. We get lots of calls asking about the rings of shallow holes on trees, such as in the photo below that was taken outside the TreeFolks office. People want to know if the small holes are caused by insects, bored kids or what; and more than that, they want to know if it’s going to kill their tree.
Shallow holes arranged in straight lines like this are the work of sapsuckers, four species of North American woodpeckers in the genus Sphyrapicus. This woodpecker pecks a series of shallow holes into tree trunks and then flies away, returning a little later to suck the sap that has oozed from the wounds and eat any insects that were attracted to the sap. In general, the damage that sapsuckers do to trees is minor and trees are able to persist and thrive despite the smattering of holes.
In rare instances in our area, the tree can be killed by diseases that take advantage of the entry point to the tree’s vascular system that sapsuckers create. If you have a tree that seems to be heavier hit than you think is desirable, there are few tricks you can try – such as rubber snakes or plastic owls that might frighten the birds away. A less than optimal strategy is to loosely wrap burlap or hardware cloth around the trunk during early spring when sapsuckers migrate through Central Texas. If you choose to go this route, do not leave the wrap on the tree for more than a few weeks. Otherwise, the tree’s cambium could grow around the wrap, interfering with the tree’s means of transporting water and nutrients from the soil to the canopy.