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.
A red, black, white, and yellow member of the woodpecker family, the red-naped sapsucker is named for its patch of crimson feathers at the rear of its head.
Males have a red crown and forehead, a red chin, black and white striped facial markings, and a yellowish-white stripe under the eye. A narrow black band separates the red forecrown and nape.
Body markings of male red-naped sapsuckers include a rich black bib, a whitish-yellow breast and belly, with black spotting on the flanks, a stiff black tail, and black wings with two rows of white bars.
Females are similar to males but have a smaller reddish patch on their chin and throat, which may sometimes lack any red coloring and be entirely white instead. The female's nape may also be white rather than red.
Juvenile red-naped sapsuckers are brownish all over, with dull black-brown markings similar to those of adults on their wings and flanks. Their cap and face are primarily mid-brown, with paler brownish streaks around the eye.
Red-naped Sapsucker perched on the side of a tree trunk
Birds of this species are the same size as North America’s other sapsuckers, the red-breasted and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. There is no distinction in size between male and female red-naped sapsuckers.
A scolding chattering series of descending notes is a typical identifying call of a red-naped sapsucker and is heard mainly at the outset of the breeding season. A low-pitched ‘waa’ is used as an alarm signal.
Red-naped Sapsucker in natural habitat
Tree sap is the chief food eaten by red-naped sapsuckers, which they access by drilling sap wells in horizontal rows around the trunks of trees, in particular Douglas fir, juniper, and quivering aspen.
Invertebrates also form a major part of their diet: ants, beetles, and spiders are gleaned from bark on tree trunks. Fruit and seeds are also eaten, particularly in winter, as well as aspen buds in spring.
Insects, sap, and fruit are brought to the nest to feed red-naped sapsucker young, and parental feeding continues for a further 10 days after the fledglings leave the nest.
Red-naped Sapsucker drilling for sap
Red-naped sapsuckers select breeding sites in deciduous and mixed woodlands, with aspen groves, ponderosa pine swathes, birch woodlands, and fir forests preferred. Parklands, orchards, and mountainous wooded landscapes up to around 1700 m (5500 ft) are visited during winter.
Red-naped sapsuckers breed in the Rocky Mountain region of North America, with southern British Columbia forming the northern extent of their range. Breeding grounds spread southwards from southwestern Canada through Idaho as far south as northern Arizona and New Mexico, where some populations are resident year-round.
Further to the south, from southern California in the west to western Texas in the east and across the border into Mexico, wintering grounds used by red-naped sapsuckers are widespread.
The Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes areas of the United States are home to the highest concentrations of red-naped sapsuckers.
The entire population of red-naped sapsuckers is estimated at 2 million mature individuals. They are the most common sapsucker species in the western United States. In mixed and deciduous forests of the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountain ranges, they are both widespread and fairly common.
Red-naped sapsuckers are widespread birds throughout the western United States. Breeding populations are present from Washington to Montana in the north, reaching Los Angeles and New Mexico.
Strongholds for the species are found in the Rocky Mountains, where aspen stands surrounded by willow are a favorite habitat. Rows of neatly drilled holes are a telltale sign that there are red-naped sapsuckers in the area.
Southeastern British Columbia and a small region of Alberta welcome breeding red-naped sapsuckers each spring. The internal plateaus of British Columbia to the east of the Coast Mountains offer a good chance of sightings.
Red-naped Sapsucker in natural habitat
No extensive data is available, but it is thought that at least two to three years is the estimated average lifespan of a red-naped sapsucker, with a maximum life expectancy of at least 6 years. Young birds can breed at 1 year, but many delay breeding until they are two years old.
Avian predators of red-naped sapsuckers include sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks and northern goshawks. Common nest raiders include black bears, weasels, deer mice, and gopher snakes.
The US Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act offer protection to red-naped sapsuckers, making it an offense to kill, injure, trade, or capture birds of the species, or destroy or damage their eggs, nests, or young.
Moderate declines in the population of red-naped sapsuckers have been observed due to habitat loss and degradation, but overall their numbers are relatively stable, which justifies their conservation status as a species of least concern.
Red-naped Sapsucker foraging for insects
Cavity nests are excavated in both dead and live trees, with quivering aspen a particular favorite species. Other popular tree species include Douglas-fir, grand fir, lodgepole pine, paper birch, ponderosa pine, and western larch. Male red-naped sapsuckers undertake the bulk of the excavation, but the participation of the females increases as it nears completion. A lining of wood chips is added to the base of the chamber.
Red-naped sapsuckers arrive on their breeding grounds from late March to April. Within three weeks, pairs have formed and excavation of a nest cavity begins. Eggs are usually laid in mid-May, followed by an incubation period of between 8 and 12 days. Both parents share incubation, with males taking the night shift. After between 23 and 32 days, nestlings are ready to fledge.
Between 3 and 7 pure white eggs are laid, measuring 23 mm by 17 mm (0.9 in by 0.7 in). Eggs are glossy, with no external markings.
Red-naped sapsuckers are certainly monogamous for the duration of the breeding season, and bonds may continue in subsequent years although this is not always the case. The species shows a strong fidelity to nesting sites and frequently returns to the same nest cavity several years in a row.
Red-naped Sapsucker bringing food for its nestlings
Extreme levels of aggression may be observed between rival males early in the breeding season, which may quickly escalate into physical interactions, with bill-gripping and wing strikes. Territorial behavior, including crest raising, throat fluffing, and wing posturing, is also seen around nest cavities and sap wells.
During cavity excavation, the male sleeps alone in the nest cavity, while the female roosts nearby close to the tree trunk. This continues during incubation, with the male in sole charge of night-time incubation and brooding until the young are around 25 days old. Once young have fledged, adults and juveniles find solitary roosting spots on tree trunks.
Red-naped Sapsucker sitting on the rocks
A short-distance migrant, the red-naped sapsucker arrives in southern Canada and the northwestern and west-central US each spring, from late March. Once breeding is complete (from August onwards), they head south for winter, mainly settling in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and over the border into Mexico.
Red-naped sapsuckers are native to the US, typically holding distinct breeding and wintering territories, but in some regions, they are year-round residents. Breeding also takes place in parts of southwestern Canada, and wintering grounds extend south into northwestern Mexico.
Red-naped Sapsucker feeding on red berries
Trees that are favored by red-naped sapsuckers for feeding and nesting include aspen, birch, pine, or juniper. Berry trees and bushes also offer good feeding opportunities, and in winter, they may be attracted by a well-stocked suet feeder.
Red-naped sapsuckers drill horizontal lines of holes in tree trunks in search of sap which can leave trees vulnerable to decay, and insect infestations and degrade the quality of the wood.
Red-naped and red-breasted sapsuckers are the same size and similar in coloring, with red, white, yellow, and black dominating their plumage. However, red-breasted sapsuckers have a solid red head and upper breast, while in the red-naped species, the extent of red is limited to the crown, chin, and back of the head.
Red-breasted sapsuckers have a smaller range and are limited to coastal areas of western Canada and the Pacific coast of the US, while red-naped sapsuckers are found over a wider area and spread much further inland.
19cm to 21cm
41cm to 43cm
32g to 66g
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.