The forested areas of East Texas are home to more species of woodpeckers than any other area of the state. With the ivory-billed woodpecker being extirpated (and most likely extinct) there are currently 8 species of woodpeckers in East Texas. These include the pileated, Northern flicker, red-bellied, red-headed, downy, hairy, red-cockaded, and yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Woodpeckers are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem as they consume and control the boring and tunneling insects that kill trees, plus spread the seed from fruit and nut bearing trees to ensure future forests. Woodpeckers can occasionally be a nuisance however, with the most common offender being the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). There are four species of sapsuckers in the U.S. but only one species in East Texas. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are black and white, with hard-to-see yellow bellies, red caps, and a red throat patch on males.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are fairly quiet, bluebird sized birds. They do have a call somewhat like a house cat though. They are the only species of woodpecker in East Texas that is migratory, spending the winters here and the spring, summers, and falls in the northern U.S. and Canada. Each October they show up and do something no other woodpecker does. Whereas all other woodpeckers dine on insects inside of dead and dying trees using their long-barbed tongues; sapsuckers use their paintbrush like tongues to feed on the sap of healthy live trees. They make holes in the bark of sap-flowing trees (usually young trees and those with smooth bark). The sapsuckers later visit these wells to lap up the nutritious sap along with any insects caught in the sticky goo.
Tiny sap wells excavated by the yellow-bellied sapsucker usually occur in straight rows on a variety of trees in such a fashion that they look like bullet holes from a gun. The feeding rarely kills a tree. The sapsucker usually makes new holes in line with the old holes. The sapsucker makes two types of holes: deeper round holes and more shallow rectangular holes. The sapsucker licks sap from these holes and may also eat the cambium of the tree.
Trees can have other holes for a number of reasons, including other woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wood boring bark beetles. Sapsucker damage is notable because the holes are pecked close together, in rows, in living tissue, with the newest holes showing up during the winter. Other types of holes are not uniformly aligned. Exit holes from borers are larger and not in rows.
Sapsuckers prefer trees with thin bark, such as maples and pears but also elms, oaks, pecans, pines, and around here, camellias and sasanquas. Generally, trees with thick, furrowed bark are less prone to damage than smooth-barked trees. Most trees recover from minor damage, but excessive numbers of holes can occasionally lead to girdling of the branch or tree, resulting in mortality.
Sapsuckers, like all native birds, are protected by state and federal laws, so lethal control is not an option. A more common control method is to discourage the sapsucker from returning by wrapping burlap, screen, or netting around the affected area from fall until spring.