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Garden World: Don't get played as a sap. Know the signs of a yellow-bellied sapsucker
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Garden World: Don't get played as a sap. Know the signs of a yellow-bellied sapsucker

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tree damage

The small, somewhat rectangular holes caused by a sapsucker always appear in straight rows, with individual holes approximately one half-inch or less apart. Whereas the perfectly round exit holes created by wood-boring insects always appear in a random pattern, never in straight rows.

A young man showed up at my door and with great urgency began to explain that he had good news and bad news regarding a shade tree in my yard.

The bad news was that my beautiful shade tree was being ravaged by hundreds of evil, wood-boring insects.

The good news was that, for a modest fee — several hundred dollars — he could spray the tree and kill the borers. And there was more good news. Since he was already in the neighborhood, his fee for spraying would be much less if he sprayed immediately rather than having to return. Time was of the essence, he assured me.

I was aware, of course, that my tree had lots of scary-looking small holes in its bark. I also knew that the holes were put there by a small woodpecker, a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

“Are you sure that’s borer damage?” I asked. “Yes, sir,” he confidently replied. I respectfully disagreed and for the next half-hour I gave the young would-be arborist a free tutorial on the care of trees as it relates to borers and woodpeckers.

Was the young man trying to scam me into an unnecessary and expensive spray job? Perhaps. But I chose to believe that he was in greater need of factual garden information than a scolding from me. And as we spoke, he seemed genuinely grateful for the information. Before he left, I hired him to do a little light pruning in my yard which, unfortunately, required a second free tutorial on sound pruning techniques.

Recognizing the difference between borer damage and woodpecker damage is child’s play. The small, somewhat rectangular holes caused by a sapsucker always appear in straight rows, one row on top of the other, with individual holes approximately one half-inch or less apart. Whereas the perfectly round exit holes created by wood-boring insects always appear in a random pattern, never in straight rows.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are beautiful little birds that overwinter in the southern United States. In the spring, they migrate to the northern United States and southern Canada. It’s worth noting that the species is classified under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and is protected by both state and federal law.

Sapsucker damage is most likely to occur on the following tree species: birch, crabapple, pine, maple and deciduous magnolias, trees with relatively high sugar content in their sap. As sap flows from newly drilled holes, the sapsucker uses its brush-like tongue to draw-up the sap along with any insects caught in the sap.

Persistent action is required to discourage sapsuckers from feeding on your tree. The use of scaring tactics such as loud horns, threatening screams and crashing cymbals may momentarily scare them away. Your neighbors may not take kindly to those tactics, however.

The internet is full of other sapsucker discouraging ideas. Strips of aluminum foil 3 to 4 feet long can be hung in front of the damaged area. Tin can lids or aluminum pie pans tied to heavy string so they will rattle and flash in the sun may also be helpful. Some gardeners believe that raptor silhouettes may scare off sapsuckers. Other tactics include the use of repellents such as Tanglefoot, Bird Stop and Roost-No-More. These products may be found online.

For the record, I’ve not found any of these tactics to be entirely successful in dealing with sapsuckers. I have, therefore, adopted a “grin-and-bear-it” approach. Besides, the colorful little birds are quite beautiful and fun to watch.

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Barry Fugatt is a landscape horticulturist and may be reached by email: barryfugatt@cox.net

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