Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
Red-breasted Sapsucker perched on a tree trunk
Red-breasted Sapsucker feeding on tree trunk
Red-breasted Sapsucker in natural habitat
20cm to 22cm
37cm to 41cm
53g to 64g
Male red-breasted sapsuckers are boldly colored with a red head and facial plumage that extends into the upper breast and to the nape. Their back is black, with small yellow spots, a distinct white shoulder patch, black wings with light yellow spotting, a white rump, and a black tail.
Below the scarlet upper breast, the lower breast and belly are yellow, marked on the flanks with black spots, and the underparts are yellowish-white. A white bar is present across the top of the bill, which is horn gray and slightly upturned.
In female red-breasted sapsuckers, the red coloring is less vibrant, and their heads are paler red, washed with white markings. The breast is also a patchier red, and their backs and wings feature more light-colored patterning than seen in males.
Juvenile red-breasted sapsuckers are darker than adults but have the same visible white wing patches seen in mature birds. Instead of the bold red coloring of adult birds, young red-breasted sapsuckers have brown feathers on their heads, and the breast is lighter brownish-buff, mottled with heavy brown markings.
Red-breasted Sapsucker perching on a branch
No major difference in size is evident between males and females, which all fall within the measurement ranges below:
Red-breasted Sapsucker foraging on the trunk of a tree
Red-breasted sapsuckers make a low, rasping call, with harsh notes and repeated phrases. A ‘waa’ call is used to signal distress and warning, particularly when a threat is detected nearby. Nasal squealing calls are heard between pairs.
Both sexes use drumming to communicate, with the species being associated with a slow and irregular pace.
Red-breasted Sapsucker calling to warn of a nearby threat
The main food of red-breasted sapsuckers is sap. They drill out horizontal rows of ‘sap wells’ in tree trunks to access the internal sap, and to ensure it continues to flow, they use a system of rectangular and circular holes.
Their tongues are shorter than those of other woodpeckers, and specially adapted with barbed edges at the tip, which helps them to extract as much sap as possible.
Fruit, seeds, and tree cambium are also eaten. Insects are sometimes caught in flight, as well as caught in sap (particularly ants).
Invertebrates, especially ants, are the chief food of young red-breasted sapsuckers. Insects fed to young are often dipped in sap, to provide extra energy. Spiders, caterpillars, and flies are also important in a young red-breasted sapsucker’s diet.
Red-breasted Sapsucker drilling a sap well
Pine forests, at elevations of up to 2900 m (9500 ft) offer ideal breeding grounds for red-breasted sapsuckers.
Preferred tree species include white pine, lodgepole pine, white fir, hemlock, Douglas fir and spruce. Some mixed deciduous woodlands may also attract breeding red-breasted sapsuckers, particularly along rivers and streams, where cottonwood and quaking aspen are favored.
Outside of the breeding season, lowland environments dominate, with many red-breasted sapsuckers moving from inland forests toward coastal woodland habitats.
Red-breasted sapsuckers are confined to the westernmost region of North America, with a range that extends from the southern coastal regions of Alaska and British Columbia in the north, southwards through western Washington, Oregon, and into California. In winter, northern breeders temporarily relocate as far south as the northern part of Baja California.
Interior uplands of British Columbia and northern California are popular as breeding grounds, with populations moving towards lowland coastal regions as summer ends.
Oregon’s Douglas fir forests in the Coastal Ranges to the south of the state have the largest concentrations of red-breasted sapsuckers.
Within much of their range, red-breasted sapsuckers are relatively common and widespread, with an estimated overall population of 2.3 million individuals. In the south of the range, they are fairly common in the
Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park is a known spot for red-breasted sapsuckers, with its rich forests offering an ideal habitat. Look for their rows of neatly drilled out sap wells in tree trunks.
Spring is a particularly good time of year for sightings as the increased activity levels at nest sites with regular feeding visits to nestlings make them more visible than usual.
Canada’s population of red-breasted sapsuckers is based entirely in British Columbia. During the breeding season, their range extends inland and they are found mostly in aspen, willow, and birch trees among mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands. Regular sightings are reported to the west of the Cascade Ranges.
Red-breasted Sapsucker in woodland habitat
On average, red-breasted sapsuckers have an expected lifespan of between 2 and 3 years and usually breed for the first time at one year old. The oldest recorded individual was identified from a banding program having reached 5 years of age.
House wrens and deer mice are known to raid red-breasted sapsuckers’ nest cavities for unhatched eggs, while nestlings are documented to have been preyed on by gopher snakes and black bears. Hawks, including Cooper’s hawks and northern goshawks, have been observed to attack adult red-breasted sapsuckers.
Red-breasted sapsuckers were once extensively hunted for their colorful feathers or shot as a pest in orchards, which led to population declines in the late 19th century. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 has given the species protection against being killed, injured, captured, or traded, and also extends these conditions to their eggs, feathers, nests and their young.
Currently listed as a species of least concern, red-breasted sapsucker populations are considered stable in much of their range, with increases apparent in Oregon at the end of the 20th century. In California, however, some slight declines in numbers were recorded.
Red-breasted Sapsucker foraging on the forest ground
Nest cavities are usually constructed in snags or dead or decaying trees. A variety of both deciduous and coniferous species are used for nesting, including western hemlock, white pine, cottonwood, Douglas fir, quaking aspen, broadleaf maple and spruce.
Males do the bulk of the cavity excavation, assisted by the female, with sites on average 30 m above ground. Cavities are lined with wood chips, but no additional material is added, and nests are not reused in subsequent years.
Cavity construction begins in April to May, with the earliest eggs observed to be laid in late April. Incubation, shared between males and females, lasts for at least 11 days, but 14 to 15 days is most common.
Eggs are barely left unattended, with males remaining in the cavity overnight, and alternating with females during the day. Young red-breasted sapsuckers are ready to leave the nest after between 23 and 28 days.
Between 4 and 7 plain white eggs are laid by red-breasted sapsuckers. Eggs measure 23 mm by 18 mm (0.9 in by 0.7 in). One single clutch is laid each season. If a clutch fails early in the breeding season, it’s likely that a replacement brood will be attempted in a different cavity.
Red-breasted sapsuckers are monogamous during the breeding season and maintain a pair bond until their young gain independence. Pairs may reunite in the following breeding season if both mates have survived the winter.
Red-breasted Sapsucker outside nest hole
Early in the breeding season, aggressive interactions between rival males are not uncommon, which escalate quickly to include physical bill-to-bill grappling as well as hostile posturing, crest raising and wing flicking. Both males and females will aggressively guard their sap wells against other birds and mammals.
Overnight roosting spots are found close to the trunk or underneath a main limb of a tree. After fledging, young red-breasted sapsuckers do not return to the nest cavity to roost.
Red-breasted Sapsucker in-flight
Some populations of red-breasted sapsuckers are migratory, although many do remain in the same breeding territories all year round. Most of British Columbia’s inland population relocates to coastal lowlands and warmer southern habitats once winter approaches. In winter, the species range reaches the northernmost regions of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.
Red-breasted sapsuckers are native to the US, with some populations resident in the same territories all year round, and others that are present only for breeding or wintering.
Red-breasted Sapsucker perching on a wooden post
Mature trees and deadwood snags will both give you a headstart in attracting red-breasted woodpeckers if you live within their range on the western coast of Canada or the US. Suet feeders may also boost their chances of visiting, particularly in winter and early spring.
Red-breasted sapsuckers are known to visit a diverse list of tree species, including coniferous hemlock and spruce forests and aspen groves. In southern parts of the range, they are mostly found in pine forests but are always within easy reach of woodlands with deciduous trees, in particular aspen, alder and willow.
Red-breasted sapsuckers are known for drilling out rows of sap wells in tree trunks. Extensive drilling can cause major harm to trees, with their rings of holes stopping sap from flowing to the roots. In most cases, however, no lasting damage is done to the tree, as the tree quickly seals off the hole so the sap flow is not interrupted.
In yards with aspen, birch, or pine trees, red-breasted sapsuckers may be tempted to investigate hanging suet feeders and large nectar feeders.
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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