Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sapsucker vs Loquat Tree - the battle continues.....

First sign of Sapsucker damage.
First we saw holes - small round ones! Lines of round holes.... then large square ones - drilled out of the bark of our beloved Loquat tree.

Culprit?  A Sapsucker. A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) to be exact.  See photo?

 Yes, I know he's cute.
That's why I've put the photo up so you can follow the link and see lots of cute photos of Sapsuckers.  <sigh>

But for my trees... .he/she and they - the world of sapsuckers - are LETHAL.

Contrary to some of the cheery "answers" I've seen on garden forums, Sapsuckers are not harmless to trees. They do "eat" trees, and are not purely insect eaters like their woodpecker relatives.  Sapsuckers' main diet is tree sap and the tender inner bark (cambium) of trees they select, although they are happy to snap up any insects they find trapped in the sap from yesterday's feeding.

Let me show you what a serious Sapsucker invasion can do over a couple of years.

 My largest Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) next to the gate. 
The photos are of my largest Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica).  The birds love this tree.  The loquat keeps its large, leathery foliage all year and has fragrant flowers in the winter, bringing in hungry bees and other insects during a lean time for foraging insects and birds.  Many of our small "yard" birds like finches, chickadees and sparrows, hide in the loquats along our fence, safe from winds and hawks.

Vertical lines of Sapsucker damage.
This photo shows you sapsucker damage several months old on a vertical branch. Can you see the darkness where mold/mildew has formed in the holes?

You can also see how the bird moves steadily up and down the branch.  Sapsuckers, being woodpeckers, are happiest when clinging to a vertical branch.  Interestingly, we've noticed that they will peck out the sides or bottom of a branch rather than the top. 

The lines you see crossing the photo are fishing line - one of the suggestions I found in a forum for deterring sapsucker damage. I turned the entire lower part of the tree into a fishline cobweb!  It worked to an extent but the little bugger was excellent at finding any branch not obstructed by line. In addition, I wanted the small birds to be able to get into the tree for protection, so the higher, smaller branches were not protected. Small branches are less sapsucker-desirable anyway.

Old holes that have filled with scar tissue.
Not "healed", just scabbed over.
This damage has healed - it's been compartmentalized and filled by the tree.  This cambium is damaged for life, however, and the vascular system of the tree is no longer functioning in this area.  You'll see comments online that the sapsucker holes don't cover enough area to truly damage a tree.  Here you can see that the damage removed all of the outer bark and first layers of inner bark from more than half the circumference of this branch.  Allowed to continue, the sapsucker would have worked all the way around this branch, effectively girdling and killing it.

Notice that there is some newer damage along the right side of the healed area. You can see the depth of the holes before the tree filled them in with scabby scar tissue.

I coated all the first damage with candle wax in an attempt to protect the open tissue and discourage the sapsucker from continuing to drill and damage the area. That also worked, after a fashion, for a few months.

New damage. Note increasing size of excavated holes.
This is the damage I discovered this morning.

This work was done in the last three days.  Notice the SIZE of the holes the sapsucker is carving! I've watched the bits of bark and wood fall as he's excavating and eating the tender, juicy inner tissue.

 Loquats have thin, smooth bark and a very soft inner cambium.  The sap is very sweet - something I never would have known had the Sapsucker not left oozing holes everywhere.  When I read that they are a scourge of sugar maple stands, I tasted the sap - and, sure enough, it was quite sweet.  This explained the sapsucker's obsession with this variety of tree!

Take a another good look at the size of these holes. This is not "minor" damage - as some of the bird sites imply/ There is almost no cambium left to carry food/water to the branches above.  It's not hard to see that this level of damage is going to kill the lovely tree you see in the top photo. I spent a decade growing this tree and one @#$% bird is going to kill it.  Argghhhh!

OK -  For anyone else fighting this miserable bird - cute, yes, but absolutely a MISERY in the garden - here is what I've tried so far:

Webbing the tree with light fishing line.  This actually seemed to protect some of the areas where it became difficult for the Sapsucker to fly in without hitting line.  It looks a bit strange (this is a very visible tree right where one walks into our garden) but that was okay.  On the other hand, the results were limited -  the 'sucker figured it out in time and I worried about the other birds trying to get into the tree in bad weather.  The line is still up and I add to it, but I'm not convinced it's the answer.

Tanglefoot, a sticky goo, applied to the bottoms of horizontal branches and the sides of vertical trunks that the 'sucker seemed to prefer attacking. (There was no need to put it on top because this bird doesn't seem to go there and I wanted other birds to be able to perch.)  Maybe this worked a little?  Hard to tell.  Definitely made a huge mess.  Damaged continued.

Wrapping all of the larger trunks and branches with paper tree wrap.  Believe it or not, the dratted bird actually pecked and tore through the wrap to get at areas it wanted. All it accomplished was providing a covered place where ants and beetles could get to the damaged areas and mold could grow in the open holes. 

 Between the sticky tanglefood, the torn tree wrap and the multicolored candle wax protecting damaged areas (what can I say? It was after Christmas and I had dozens of red and colored candles to melt and use)... the entire tree was becoming a total mess.

Spraying the trunks with horticultural oil, blended with Cinnamite - this didn't work either, but may offer some protection against the insects and diseases that move into the damaged areas.

Oh, and did I mention that I also tried the online suggestion of adding bright windchimes and other hanging things to frighten the Sapsucker?  (No, they didn't work, either.)

Really, I should have taken more photos.  My loveliest tree has become a disaster.

So, has ANYTHING worked so far? 
Right now I have only one remedy that has even slowed down the Sapsucker invasion.
I rub all the trunks and branches all over with lots of plain old dishwashing soap.  It was a last ditch inspiration.  I was going to add rat poison to the soap but, after all, killing Sapsuckers is a Federal offense.  (Go figure.)  The soap is harmless.  It's not going to kill other birds that sit in the tree or murder my dogs or chickens should they wander under the loquat or eat any of the vegetation that might get coated after a rain.  Every time I find a new area of damage, I coat that trunk with undiluted liquid dish soap, making it as foul tasting as possible.

I'm planning to keep it up as long as I have to.
I have the cleanest loquat in town.
One good downpour and it's going to look like a bubble bath.

Unfortunately, I don't have the time to do this for all of the trees.  I'm probably just moving the Sapsucker to the younger Loquats down the line.

Finally, here's my plea - if anyone reading this blog post has found a way to deter these birds, please, please add a comment or send me an email and share your solution(s).  Truly.  I'm getting discouraged and desperate.  Is there no way at all I can save these trees?



  1. Sorry to hear about the tree. Have you tried fire tape or those eye balloons to scare them off?

  2. Thad, seems like anything works for a day. My lovely loquat looks like some kind of deranged Christmas display. I'm still not giving up. I wonder how long behind bars you get for murdering a sapsucker? Maybe I can con one of the neighborhood SEAL team members into slithering over here at the crack of dawn to sniper the little 'sucker out of the tree. I won't tell if you won't!

  3. Hello Sybil, I would get some heavy mesh and shape it so there is 2"-3" gap between it and the tree. This way the woodpecker can't reach the bark. Home Depot or Lowe's sell a diamond pattern mesh that is used when applying stucco to a house. I would cover the trunk and some of the larger branches. Should do the trick. Please wear gloves.
    Last year I got fig cuttings for donating to your cause and bike ride and most are doing fine. I hope the event was very successful and so glad that you took it on.


  4. Hi, Luke! Great to hear from you and I'm so glad that you had some good results with your cuttings. It was a great ride and the San Mar Children's Home is truly a special place, well worth all of our support. Love the mesh idea and I think that may be my final try. I hate to have a beautiful, sculptural landscape tree looking like a war zone with all of my defensive insstalltions but I just can't watch this miserable little 'sucker peck my tree to death. I have truly, truly never seen anything like it. Thanks for the good idea! I'll keep you posted. - Sybil

  5. Perhaps Prozac would help this OCD bird.

    1. Ha! Great Idea! And if it doesn't work for him, Minnie, I may try it!

  6. We planted a bunch of Austrian pines in our yard last year. Lo and behold, the sapsucker invasion started a couple of weeks ago. I feel discouraged after reading your post. We're going to try suet feeder method. I can come back and report if we're successful.

    Though your article is going to save us lots of time and money on other methods that did not work. And it's good to know about the spray mixture to help the damaged areas. We saw lots of flies hanging over the damaged parts of the trees. :(

  7. These should stop your problem for good:


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