Sapsuckers! Persistent birds drill into, but usually do not harm trees

A distinctive pattern of rows or clusters of small holes in the bark of this tree's trunk are the work of a sapsucker--a type of woodpecker. Photo: WSU Extension.

Sapsuckers! Sounds like an invasion of harmful, tree-killing insects, but sapsuckers–a type of woodpecker–are a common bird in Washington State. Sapsuckers do bore holes in trees but, for the most part, the damage is not harmful.

Many people encounter sapsucker damage to trees in the forest or in their yards. Sapsucker damage is easy to identify. The holes are 1/8 to 1/4 inch in diameter and drilled in a pattern, such as lines or clusters. You’ll often see many of the holes close together. It may look like someone took a tiny machine gun to the tree.

Sapsucker damage is often mistaken for insect damage (e.g. barkbeetles or other boring insects), but there are some important visual differences. Trees with bark damage due to insects will typically have fewer, smaller holes, and the holes will be randomly distributed, not in patterns like sapsucker holes. The presence of sapsucker damage does not mean the tree has insects. Unlike other woodpeckers, sapsuckers are drilling for the tree sap, not for insects living in the tree.

What–if anything–should you do?

So what should you do about sapsuckers? In most cases, do nothing. The shallow damage will not be severe enough to cause serious problems to the tree(s). If a persistent sapsucker is causing serious injury to a tree, or making it vulnerable to other problems, try wrapping hardware cloth around the affected area. This might shift the bird’s focus to a neighboring but, likely, healthier tree that can sustain the minor damage the bird causes.

Sapsuckers, like all woodpeckers, are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. For the most part, sapsucker damage is just part of living with nature, something to be endured as an occasional inconvenience.

Just be glad that they are drilling into your trees, not your house’s siding.

(A version of this article appears in the Forest Stewardship Notes newsletter, published by DNR and Washington State University Extension. View the latest issue or sign up for a free e-mail subscription to any of DNR’s e-newsletters.

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