Nature Nugget – Sapsucker Wells

Sapsuckers are small woodpeckers that breed only in North America. There are currently four species recognized: the Yellow-bellied, Red-naped, Red-breasted, and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. The first three species are very closely related and may in actuality be just variations of the same species, since they look similar, have the same calls and habits, and interbreed where their ranges overlap. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is found mostly in eastern North America; the Red-naped Sapsucker is found at low to medium elevations throughout the interior west; the Red-breasted Sapsucker is found along the Pacific coast; and the Williamson’s Sapsucker is found at higher elevations in the mountains throughout the west.

Sapsuckers are cavity nesters and prefer to nest in trees such as aspens and poplars that are infected with heart rot fungus. The fungus makes the heartwood soft, which makes excavating the nest cavity easier. They excavate a new nest cavity every year. Their old cavities provide nesting sites for other species such as swallows, bluebirds, chickadees, and other woodpecker species.

As their name suggests, sapsuckers feed on tree sap, as well as on insects, and even on the cambium (inner bark) of certain trees. Sapsuckers drill vertical and horizontal rows of sap “wells” along the trunks of living trees. Sapsucker wells have been found on more than 275 species of both deciduous and coniferous trees. Each well or hole is about a quarter-inch in diameter and oozes a steady stream of sugary sap. The high sugar content of the sap attracts insects, which become trapped in the sticky sap. When the sapsucker visits the sap wells, it captures (laps) sap and insects with its long bushy tongue. The sapsuckers feed their young with insects dipped into the sap wells, which provides both protein and sugars for the young. This sap accounts for as much as 20 percent of the young sapsuckers’ diet.

Sapsuckers are a “keystone” species, meaning that large portions of certain ecosystems are dependent on them for survival. Not only are numerous species of birds dependent on their old cavities for nesting sites, but whole communities of other organisms use the sap wells for food, including wasps, hornets, butterflies, warblers, chipmunks, and squirrels. Other species such as flycatchers, robins, and vireos feed on the swarms of insects attracted to the sap. Thirty-five species of birds have been reported to visit sapsucker wells to feed on the nutrient-rich sap and/or the insects attracted there. Early returning hummingbirds in the spring are often dependent on sapsucker wells until the flowers start blooming.

As the sapsucker is dependent on the sapsucker wells for its survival, so should we depend on Christ and His Word for our survival. “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” John 4:14. “The words of God are the wellsprings of life. As you seek unto those living springs you will, through the Holy Spirit, be brought into communion with Christ.” Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 20. And as the sapsucker wells overflow and feed a wide variety of other creatures, so should we let God’s Word overflow from our lives to feed others. “He has intrusted you with sacred truth; Christ abiding in the individual members of the church is a well of water springing up into everlasting life. You are guilty before God if you do not make every effort possible to dispense this living water to others.” Christian Service, 12.

David Arbour writes from his home in DeQueen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at