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Characteristics of Sap Trees Used by Overwintering Sphyrapicus varius (Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers) in an Old-growth Pine Forest
J. Morgan Varner III, John S. Kush, and Ralph S. Meldahl

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 5, Number 1 (2006): 127–134

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2006 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 5(1):127–134 Characteristics of Sap Trees Used by Overwintering Sphyrapicus varius (Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers) in an Old-growth Pine Forest J. MORGAN VARNER III1,2, JOHN S. KUSH1,3,*, AND RALPH S. MELDAHL1 Abstract - Sphyrapicus varius (Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers) are winter residents of mature Pinus palustris (longleaf pine) forests in the southeastern US. Sapsuckers pierce the bark of mature pines to create wells on living trees and consume the sugarrich exudate and insects attracted to this food source. To determine sapsucker preferences for individual trees, for locations along boles, and for edge vs. interior habitat, we surveyed an old-growth Pinus palustris stand in lower Alabama with recent sapsucker activity. Individual tree characteristics and stand conditions were evaluated to assess their influence on the number and location of sap wells. Of 596 pines sampled, 74 (12.4%) contained wells. Sapsuckers selected trees with greater diameter at breast height (mean dbh of welled trees = 40.4 cm; non-welled trees = 24.6 cm; P < 0.01). Among pines with wells, sapsuckers fed differentially on different aspects and stem heights. Sap wells were concentrated on the north aspect of the bole (P < 0.05), where wells were 40% more likely to occur than any other aspect. No stand characteristics (plot distance to stand edge, plot basal area, plot tree density, 5-year radial increment growth) significantly influenced sapsucker treeselection patterns. Introduction Sphyrapicus varius L. (Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers) are migratory woodpeckers that create horizontal rows of wells in the bark of more than 200 native woody plants (McAtee 1911). Sapsucker wells are small rectangular holes pierced through the bark primarily into the sap-filled phloem, but also into the cambium and xylem (Eberhardt 2000). Sapsucker wells fill with sap that comprises between 20 and 100% of the sapsucker’s diet (Beal 1911, Emlen 1978, Tate 1973, Walters et al. 2002). The sugar-rich sap also attracts at least 14 arthropod families (Rissler et al. 1995) and 35 avian and six mammalian species (Foster and Tate 1966). A major priority in understanding the behavior and ecology of Yellowbellied Sapsuckers is their selection of individual trees and the location of wells along the boles of selected trees (Eberhardt 2000, Walters et al. 2002). In the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s breeding range, Erdmann and Oberg (1974) found that they select more vigorous Betula alleghaniensis Britton (yellow birch) over less vigorous trees. Work by several investigators 1School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University, AL 36849. 2Current address - Department of Forestry and Watershed Management, One Harpst Street, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA 95521. 3Corresponding author - kushjoh@auburn.edu. 128 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 1 (Eberhardt 2000, Ohman and Kessler 1964) suggests that sapsuckers choose older, diseased, lower-vigor trees for a combination of both sucrose and amino acids. The diet of sapsuckers consists of a mix of insect prey and sap (Eberhardt 2000, Foster and Tate 1966, Kilham 1983, Rissler et al. 1995, Tate 1973), though investigators disagree over proportions and preferences. Better understanding of individual tree selection patterns could help clarify this debate by demonstrating preferences among trees of contrasting vigor (i.e., if insects are the primary prey item then damaged, lower vigor trees would be favored, whereas if sap was the primary prey, then higher vigor trees would be favored by sapsuckers) or other characteristics (e.g., age, dimensions, species, and location). Pinus palustris Miller (longleaf pine), native to the southeastern US, is a species often used by wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Repenning and Labisky 1985). Sapsuckers, like Picoides borealis Vieillot (Red-cockaded Woodpeckers), show significant roosting and foraging preferences for mature longleaf pine forests (Repenning and Labisky 1985). There has been a focus of recent scientific and conservation interest in Pinus palustris ecosystems due to the precipitous decline in area (97% lost since European settlement), interruption of frequent fire regimes, loss of old-growth forests, and the imperiled status of much of their flora and fauna (Varner and Kush 2004). In an assessment of native ecosystems, Noss et al. (1995) listed the Pinus palustris ecosystem as the third most endangered ecosystem in the US. Many natural history elements are poorly understood within longleaf pine ecosystems, including information on overwintering Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Determining sapsucker tree selection patterns can be based on several tree characteristics. Trees with greater radial growth or percentage of height occupied by foliage are more vigorous than trees with lower values of these parameters. In Pinus palustris ecosystems, Hooper (1996) found that less vigorous trees are preferentially visited by the arthropods that sapsuckers are known to consume, particularly Hymenopterans (principally Camponotus spp.), Coleopterans, and Lepidopterans (Kilham 1983). Conversely, more vigorous trees produce more photosynthate (Zimmerman 1961) and are visited less by arthropods (Hooper 1996). Location of wells along stems is also important and may help clarify tree selection and food source (Eberhardt 2000). The primary objective of this study was to document sapsucker selection patterns within the sapsucker’s overwintering range. We also wanted to determine patterns of individual tree selection among pines in a monospecific stand. Within the population of trees with sap wells, we sought to better understand the spatial patterns of well creation along the bole. Finally, we sought to add to the natural history of Pinus palustris ecosystems and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. 2006 J.M. Varner III, J.S. Kush, and R.S. Meldah 129 Study Area and Methods The Flomaton Natural Area (FNA) is a 27-ha old-growth Pinus palustris stand in Escambia County, AL (31o01'N, 87o15'W). Fire was excluded from the stand for 45 years until 1994 when an aggressive ecological restoration program began with complete hardwood (primarily Quercus spp.) harvest and three prescribed fires (Varner et al. 2000). In May 1996, all hardwood trees were harvested from the stand. During the following two growing seasons (1996 and 1997), remnant Pinus palustris increased their growth (Varner et al. 2000) and stand conditions improved, unintentionally restoring habitat for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Fieldwork had been conducted in the stand since 1993, and there was little or no Yellow-bellied Sapsucker activity before the removal of the hardwoods (J. Kush, Auburn University, AL, pers. observ.). As part of a restoration monitoring project at the FNA (Kush et al. 2004), thirty-two 0.08-ha circular plots were established on a 60-m x 80-m grid. Within these plots, all trees > 2.5-cm diameter at breast height (DBH) were examined by at least two observers for presence of sapsucker wells. Sap well patterns were recorded for each tree with wells present. Patterns included abundance, heights of sap wells, and aspect of wells on bole (north, south, east, or west). Heights of sap wells on the stem below the canopy were classified into thirds of the bole and designated lower, middle, and upper, regardless of tree height. Individual tree data including DBH, height to base of living crown (crown height), total tree height, age (number of annual rings at 1.3 m) and 5-year radial increment growth were obtained from the ongoing monitoring of the ecosystem restoration project (Kush et al. 2004). Values for pine density (trees ha-1), pine basal area (m2 ha-1), hardwood basal area harvested (m2 ha-1), hardwood density harvested (trees ha-1), and distance to stand edge were also available for each plot. Differences between pines with sapsucker wells and those without wells were determined using a chi-square analysis (PROC LOGISTIC; SAS Institute 1999). Differences between proportion of pines with wells per plot along the stand edge and stand interior were analyzed using a chi-square analysis (PROC LOGISTIC; SAS Institute 1999). Analyses of well locations (aspect and stem height) were performed using chi-square analysis (PROC FREQ; SAS Institute 1999). For all analyses, significance was determined using α = 0.05. Results Of the 597 pines surveyed, 74 (12.4%) contained wells (Fig. 1). Sapsuckers selected significantly larger diameter trees (P < 0.003) for excavating sap wells (Table 1). While bole height and total height of pines with wells was higher than those without, they did not differ significantly (Table 1). Pines 130 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 1 with wells tended to be older (P = 0.06) than non-welled trees (79.4 y for welled and 51.4 y for non-welled pines, respectively; Table 1). There were no differences in 5-year radial increment growth between trees with wells and those that did not have wells (Table 1). Among plot characteristics (pine density, pine basal area, and hardwood basal area removed during restoration), there were no significant relationships between these attributes and the presence or absence of sap wells (Table 2). In addition, the distance to stand edge was explored, but plots near an opening had as many trees with sap wells as plots located in the interior of the stand. Figure 1. Pinus palustris forests are habitat for overwintering Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the southeastern United States. Sapsuckers pierce the bark of longleaf pine to access the sapfilled phloem and the arthropods attracted to the sugar-rich food source. Table 1. Characteristics of Pinus palustris with and without Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sap wells. Column headings refer to presence (Wells) or absence (No wells) of sap wells. No wells Wells Mean n S.D. Mean n S.D. PA DBH (cm) 24.7 522 14.21 39.9 74 13.48 0.003 Crown height (m) 14.4 522 3.24 16.6 74 3.04 0.345 Total height (m) 21.7 522 17.86 26.5 74 12.10 0.509 Age (y) 51.4 471 35.50 79.4 57 56.51 0.060 5-year radial increment (cm) 0.30 522 0.387 0.33 74 0.345 0.874 AAll statistical analyses were performed using chi-square analyses with α = 0.05. 2006 J.M. Varner III, J.S. Kush, and R.S. Meldah 131 Sap wells were differentially distributed along the boles of Pinus palustris. Sapsuckers preferred feeding on the north aspect of the bole (P less than 0.05), more than twice as much as either the S or E aspect and nearly 40% more common than the W aspect (Table 3). We found no differences in sapsucker preference for bole section (lower, mid, upper). Discussion Given the characteristics of sap trees in our stand, sapsuckers selected pines with larger diameters (Table 1); this data confirms results found in the sapsucker’s breeding range (Erdmann and Oberg 1974). However, other investigators have found that sapsuckers selected weakened trees for sap wells (Eberhardt 2000, Ohman and Kessler 1964, Walters et al. 2002). This may be due to the fact that sapsuckers tend to have fidelity for sap trees, perhaps working the trees until they are weakened and susceptible to disease (Eberhardt 2000).Sapsuckers may select vigorous pines initially for sugars and use wells in other species or in other stands for necessary amino acids. Additional experimental work on tree selection over longer time periods is needed in both their breeding and over-wintering range (Eberhardt 2000, Walters et al. 2002). Trees used by sapsuckers in our study area were older and had larger diameters than unused trees. The larger trees sapsuckers selected provided larger areas for feeding and likely for sap production. Photosynthates form pockets in the phloem tissue of conifers (Zimmerman 1961), and these Table 2. Plot data used in the analyses of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker activity for the Flomaton Natural Area, AL. Mean Min. Max. S.D. PA Longleaf pine density (stems/ha) 284 62 655 151.77 0.354 Longleaf pine basal area (m2/ha) 18.18 3.57 39.23 8.12 0.467 Hardwood basal area removed (m2/ha) 10.09 4.12 22.86 4.12 0.567 AAll statistical analyses were performed using chi-square analyses with α = 0.05 Table 3.-Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sap well locations along boles of Pinus palustris at Flomaton Natural Area, AL. Location along bole refers to height of wells along defined thirds of each longleaf pine bole. Aspect refers to the location of wells within defined quarters of a stem section (i.e., N denotes presence of sap wells within the 315º to 45º face of a longleaf pine stem). Units for data in table = number of trees. Bole location N S E W Total Lower 33A 24 21 29 107 Middle 36A 15 17 21 89 Upper 42A 12 14 18 86 Total 111 51 52 68 282 Adenotes significant differences among aspect (columns), determined using chi-square analysis, with α = 0.05. 132 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 1 pockets and the limited sap that moves during winter are a rich food source for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (sensu Zimmerman 1961). Therefore, larger diameter trees have greater bark surface and should have more photosynthate pockets for sapsucker exploitation. Sapsuckers aggregated their sap wells on the boles of pines in our stand, which may have been a response to insect abundance. Hanula and Franzreb (1998) found abundance and biomass of insects varied vertically along the stems of Pinus palustris, however, they did not examine aspect differences. Although not significant, our results show a consistent trend of greatest abundance on the lower tree bole where more insects occur (Hanula and Franzreb 1998). Depending on the preferred food of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker during winter, different conclusions can be reached with respect to well placement on Pinus palustris. Hooper (1996) found that winter arthropod biomass on Pinus palustris declined as pines aged and as vigor declined (radial growth in the preceding 6–10 y). Causes for the observed differences in aspect and stem height locations of sap wells in this study are unknown, but may be related to photosynthate segregation along the stem (Conner et al. 1975), bark moisture on different aspects, differential bark thickness, or varying insect prey habitat (Hanula and Franzreb 1998), among others. Future efforts should focus on experimentation to determine feeding preferences and foraging behavior of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Walters et al. 2002). Additionally, stem location preferences deserve further study from both avian feeding behavior and from tree physiology approaches. This study also raises questions about biotic response to ecosystem restoration. At this early juncture, restoration ecology has only scratched the surface of responses and interactions of associated plants (Varner et al. 2000) and animals (Ford et al. 1999, Masters et al. 1998) to manipulations for desired future conditions. Acknowledgments R. Sampson and W. Hauffe assisted with field work. G. Hill, A. Keyser, M. Mitchell, R. Seman-Varner, and two anonymous reviewers provided constructive comments on drafts of the manuscript. We thank Champion International Corporation (now International Paper) and F. Dickard for allowing us to conduct this study. Financial support was provided by the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. Literature Cited Beal, F.E.L. 1911. Food of the woodpeckers of the United States. United States Department of Agriculture Biological Survey Bulletin 37. 64 pp. Conner, R.N., R.G. Hooper, H.S. Crawford, and H.S. Mosby. 1975. Woodpecker nesting habitat in cut and uncut woodlands in Virginia. Journal of Wildlife Management 39:144–150. 2006 J.M. Varner III, J.S. Kush, and R.S. Meldah 133 Eberhardt, L.S. 2000. Use and selection of sap trees by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The Auk 117:41–51. Emlen, J.T. 1978. Density anomalies and regulatory mechanisms in land bird populations on the Florida peninsula. American Naturalist 112:265–286. Erdmann, G.C., and R.R. Oberg. 1974. Sapsucker feeding damages crown-released yellow birch trees. Journal of Forestry 72:760–763. Ford, W.M., M.A. Menzel, D.W. McGill, L.J. Laerm, and T.S. McCay. 1999. Effects of a community-restoration fire on small mammals and herpetofauna in the southern Appalachians. Forest Ecology and Management 114:231–243. Foster, W.L., and J. Tate. 1966. The activities and co-actions of animals at sapsucker trees. Living Bird 5:87–113. Hanula, J.L., and K. Franzreb. 1998. Source, distribution, and abundance of macroarthropods on the bark of longleaf pine: Potential prey of the Redcockaded Woodpecker. Forest Ecology and Management 102:89–102. Hooper, R.G. 1996. Arthropod biomass in winter and the age of longleaf pines. Forest Ecology and Management 82:115–131. Kilham, L. 1983. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Pp. 151–175, In L. Kilham (Ed.). Woodpeckers of Eastern North America. Nuttall Ornithological Club. 240 pp. Kush, J.S., R.S. Meldahl, and C. Avery. 2004. A restoration success: Longleaf pine seedlings established in a fire-suppressed, old-growth stand. Ecological Restoration 22:6–10. Masters, R.E., R.L. 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The influence of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers on local insect community structure. Wilson Bulletin 107:746–752. SAS Institute Inc. 1999. SAS/STAT User’s Guide, Release Version 8, 4th edition. Cary, NC. Tate, J. 1973. Methods and annual sequence of foraging by the sapsucker. The Auk 90:840–856. Varner, J.M., and J.S. Kush. 2004. Old-growth longleaf pine forests and savannas of the southeastern USA: Status and trends. Natural Areas Journal 24:141–149. Varner, J.M., J.S. Kush, and R.S. Meldahl. 2000. Ecological restoration of an oldgrowth longleaf pine stand utilizing prescribed fire. Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference Proceedings 21:216–219. 134 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 5, No. 1 Walters, E.L., E.H. Miller, and P.E. Lowther. 2002. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). In A. Poole and F. Gill (Eds.).The Birds of North America, No. 662 The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA. Zimmerman, M.H. 1961. Movement of organic substances in trees. Science 133:73–79.