When the very first ruby-throated hummingbirds begin arriving in backyards across the state food is at a premium. This is because most of the flowers at that are blooming in early spring do not produce an abundance of nectar. As such, rubythroats must find other sources of food. In addition to our feeders, many hummingbirds rely on the sugary sap that collects in holes drilled in 246 species of native trees by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In case you are not familiar with this winter migrant, it is a woodpecker best known for drilling shallow holes in live trees. Often these holes are arranged in circles surrounding the trunk of a tree. Sap flowing through the tree collects in these cavities. In fact, in some cases, you can actually see where it oozed out of the cavities and dripped down the trunk of the tree.
The sap is a major source of food for the woodpecker. The sapsucker is able to dine on the sap because its tongue is equipped with an odd brush-like structure that it uses to collect the sticky liquid and bring it into its body.
Although sapsuckers often vainly try to discourage other wildlife from robbing their tiny sap-filled reservoirs, wildlife such as Carolina chickadees, squirrels, butterflies, moths, and ruby-throated hummingbirds often avail themselves of the food. Since the sap contains amino acids and sucrose, it is an ideal food for hungry hummingbirds.
It appears the food provided by the yellow-bellied sapsucker is more important to hummingbirds than we once thought. For example, rubythroats have been observed tailing sapsuckers through wooded areas seemingly to learn the location of active sapsucker wells. In addition, hummingbirds have been recorded actually trying to thwart other birds from feeding on trees containing sapsucker sucker holes.
It has also been demonstrated the northward migration of the yellow-bellied sapsucker closely mirrors that of the ruby-throated hummingbird. It should also be noted that when the rubythroats that nests in the northern limits of their breeding range, few nectar plants are blooming. This necessitates the birds to rely heavily on the sap collected in sapsucker wells to survive until nectar-bearing plants begin to bloom.
Chances are, if you have fruit or other hardwood trees growing in your backyard, they have been visited by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I guess you could say that when it comes to feeding hummingbirds early in the spring, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and we are the ruby-throated hummingbird’s best friends.