If you live in western North America, you’ve almost certainly encountered this sprightly red-headed bird climbing around on the thick tree trunks of coastal and mountain forests – or perhaps seen the characteristic parallel rows of tiny holes of its sap wells in deciduous trees.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker is the Pacific coast’s version of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and, in fact, they were once considered the same species. Quiet for much of the year, you can find these beautiful woodpeckers by taking a stroll in a west coast woodland near you in the springtime. As you walk, listen for their loud nasally squealing calls, irregular echoing drum series, and rhythmic tapping as they hunt for insects in tree bark and create their distinctive sap wells.
Coming across a tree riddled with small symmetrical holes is a sure sign a sapsucker is nearby, and, if you’re patient, the bird will make an appearance to feast on or defend its personal feeding station. This is definitely the easiest way to get a good look at these brightly colored forest beauties! Keep reading to learn how to identify, appreciate, and protect these ecologically important woodland birds.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are one of around 240 currently described species in the family Picidae, which includes all of the world’s sapsuckers, woodpeckers, wrynecks, and piculets in its 35 genera. Picidae is further classified into four subfamilies: the Pucumninae (piculets), Sasiinae (African piculets), Jynginae (wrynecks), and Picinae (woodpeckers and sapsuckers).
Also known as the true woodpeckers, birds of the subfamily Picinae are identified by their chisel-like bills, short legs, strong claws, stiffened tail feathers, sticky barbed or hairy tongues, and specialized skull and neck anatomy capable of absorbing tremendous impacts – all modifications for climbing trees and extracting insect larvae or sap from within the wood.
In addition, all woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet, in which two toes point forward and two (or in some cases three) point backward. This is another important adaption for climbing vertical surfaces like trees and clinging to branches while feeding.
Most woodpeckers have contrasting black-and-white plumage marked by patches of red or yellow. They fly in a characteristic undulating pattern in which they rise with intermittent wingbeats before dipping into a brief freefall.
Woodpeckers typically live in wooded environments across North America, South America, Eurasia, and Africa, with most species occurring in the New World’s tropical forests. A few species can also be found in grassland, tundra, and even desert environments.
The large subfamily Picinae currently includes 204 species in its 33 genera. The subfamily is further divided into six tribes. The Red-breasted Sapsucker is classified within the tribe Melanerpini, which contains 13 genera. It is one of four species of sapsucker in the genus Sphyrapicus, which translates to “hammer woodpecker” in Ancient Greek.
Sapsuckers of the genus Sphyrapicus are known for their relatively long wings and habit of drilling holes in various trees and shrubs, which they then feed on using specialized brush-tipped tongues. Sometimes, this behavior even earns them the title of “pest.” All four sapsucker species are native to North America.
Taxonomy At a Glance
Species: Sphyrapicus ruber
How to Identify the Red-breasted Sapsucker
With their vibrant mostly red heads, adult Red-breasted Sapsuckers are pretty easy to identify from other sapsuckers. They are the most visually stunning species in the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker complex, which also includes the Red-naped Sapsucker and, you guessed it, the namesake Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Adult Red-breasted Sapsuckers are medium-sized woodpeckers, measuring 8.5 inches from head to tail. As their name suggests, they have bright red heads and breasts interrupted only by a white spot between their bill and eyes. This makes them fairly unmistakable, though the red feathers can become worn in the summer months which makes them less distinctive. Their relatively long bills are slightly upturned.
Their upper chests are uniformly red and lack the central black patch found in other sapsuckers. Their lower chests, meanwhile, are light colored with yellowish hues in the center and dark streaks on the sides. Their backs are mostly black, punctuated by two rows of white or yellow spots. Overall, they have significantly less back spotting than other sapsuckers. They also have distinctive white rumps.
Like all sapsuckers, they have relatively long wings. They fly in an undulating pattern, dipping with wings tucked only to rise with a series of quick flaps. In flight, large white patches are visible in the center of their otherwise black wings. When perched with wings folded, these patches appear as long vertical white stripes. Male and female Red-breasted Sapsuckers are remarkably similar in appearance, but a few slight differences do exist.
Adult male Red-breasted Sapsuckers have more red on their heads and chests than their female counterparts and also feature fewer white facial markings.
Female Red-breasted Sapsuckers feature less red on their heads and chests than males. They also have more light-colored markings on their faces and tail feathers.
Juvenile Red-breasted Sapsuckers are darker in color overall. They have brown feathers on their heads and chests in place of the vibrant red plumage of adults. Their backs are uniformly dark and their chests are light-colored with dense brown mottling. They do, however, still show the characteristic white wing patches.
There are two subspecies of the Red-breasted Sapsucker.
- Sphyrapicus ruber ruber (Northern Red-breasted Sapsucker) occurs from southern Oregon north to southeastern Alaska. On occasion, this subspecies has been found as far south as San Diego, California, and as far east as southern Arizona but this is rare, as it favors coastal forests. They are slightly larger, feature brighter and more extensive red on their heads and breasts, very little white marking on their heads, and show a more pronounced line between their red upper chests and lower yellow bellies, which are brighter yellow than the bellies of their southern counterparts. They have a skinny row of yellow spots on their backs and fewer back markings than the southern subspecies.
- Sphyrapicus ruber daggetti (Southern Red-breasted Sapsucker) occurs from southern Oregon south to western Baja California, Mexico, and inland to parts of the southwest. They are more common in mountain forests from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation. This subspecies is smaller overall, features less extensive and pronounced red on the heads and chests, and has more white facial markings. They also have heavier white spotting on their backs. Males and females of this subspecies are almost indistinguishable.
Because the Red-breasted Sapsucker is closely related to the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-naped Sapsucker – and, in fact, all three were once considered the same species – the three species interbreed readily where their summer ranges overlap, producing hybrid birds that are often impossible to identify.
Hybrids between the Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers are most common, as the two species have extensive range overlap from British Columbia south to eastern California. Hybridization is most common in Washington’s Cascade and California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. Hybrids between the Red-breasted andYellow-bellied Sapsucker are less common, as the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is primarily an eastern species. However, they do occur in Canada.
In all cases, hybrid birds are more likely to occur farther east than true Red-breasted Sapsuckers. They often feature a confusing mix of head markings inherited from each parent, making identification impossible.
Due to their bright red heads and chests, Red-breasted Sapsuckers are pretty easy to tell apart from most other woodpeckers. However, they can be confused with their closest cousins of the genus Sphyrapicus.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are very closely related to Red-breasted Sapsuckers. Luckily, they usually have significantly less red on their heads and breasts and more white markings on their faces and backs. In addition, they have black patches on their upper chests and more yellow on their necks. They also live more inland than the Red-breasted Sapsucker. Juvenile Red-naped Sapsuckers are lighter in color overall and feature more facial markings.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are another of the Red-breasted Sapsucker’s closest cousins. They have more white markings on their faces, less red on their heads and breasts, and black patches on their upper chests. They also occur in eastern North America, putting them on the opposite coast from the Red-breasted Sapsucker in most instances. Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are lighter in color overall and feature more facial markings.
Williamson’s Sapsuckers have a lot of black markings on their faces and only a tiny red patch on their chins. They also occur at higher elevations and in drier habitats than the Red-breasted Sapsucker.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Vocalizations and Sounds
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are quite vocal and noisy in the spring as they prepare for the breeding season but are relatively quiet otherwise, asides from their rhythmic taps as they peck holes in trees.
Both male and female Red-breasted Sapsuckers issue nasally squeals that sound like “weep!” and other whine-like calls to maintain contact with one another in dense forests. Overall, their calls are similar to those of other sapsuckers but are lower-pitched and hoarser on average.
Aggravated Red-breasted Sapsuckers produce many different raspy and squeaky series.
Male Red-breasted Sapsuckers establish their territories and attract mates with a series of loud hammering taps on resonating objects like tree trunks or house gutters. Drum patterns are unique to each woodpecker species and serve a similar function to a songbird’s song.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers have a slower and more irregular rattling drum sequence than other woodpeckers, which they repeat several times after a brief pause. It is similar to the drum series of their close cousins, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-naped Sapsucker.
Begging Red-breasted Sapsucker nestlings issue an incessant series of squeaky chatter.
Where Does the Red-breasted Sapsucker Live?
Red-breasted Sapsuckers live primarily in the coastal and mountain forests of western North America from western Baja California, Mexico, north to southeast Alaska.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are found across North America’s western coast from southeastern Alaska south to western Baja California in northern Mexico. They are most abundant in the coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California as well as in British Columbia.
Occasionally, they wander more inland to Arizona, New Mexico, and central Texas. They have also been found in Sonora, Mexico, and on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are birds of mature forestlands. During the breeding season, they prefer moist coniferous forests – often containing hemlock and spruce trees – and other dense forests featuring a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees like oaks, aspens, cherries, maples, willows, alders, and birch trees, which they use to create their characteristic sap wells.
Birds of the northwest regions prefer wet coastal old-growth or second-growth forests from sea level to 8,700 feet elevation while southern birds and birds of the more mountainous inland regions prefer pine forests punctuated by stands of aspen and alder. They will also make use of powerline clearings, parks, and orchards adjacent to their breeding habitats, especially in the winter months.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Migration
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are year-round residents throughout most of their range and, in fact, are considered the least migratory of all the sapsuckers, though they will relocate to more hospitable parts of their range during winter.
Northern populations in southeastern Alaska and British Columbia may move south, Pacific Northwest birds may move slightly south or from cooler inland areas to the more temperate coast, and higher elevation populations may move to the lowlands seeking food and respite from harsh winter conditions.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Diet and Feeding
Red-breasted Sapsuckers mostly eat insects but also supplement their diet with fruit, suet, and, as their name suggests, tree sap.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers feast primarily on insects – favoring ants and beetles – as well as many other small arthropods. These are plucked from within crevices in bark, lured via sticky sap wells, and, on occasion, snatched right out of the air.
Sapsuckers are named for their habit of drilling parallel series of small holes in trees. This formation – known as a sap well – causes trees to ooze sap, which provides the birds with a reliable rich, sugary treat. Sap wells also attract insects, their preferred food.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers will also take berries, seeds, and other fruit, especially in the winter months when insects are scarce.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers will visit bird feeders offering fatty suet.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Breeding
The Red-breasted Sapsucker’s breeding season begins with courtship in early spring, with nest construction commencing in April or May. They raise one brood each year.
Starting in early spring, male Red-breasted Sapsuckers drum to advertise their territories and attract mates. Should a female express interest in his neck of the woods, the male Red-breasted Sapsucker will put on quite a show by flicking his wings, bobbing and thrusting his head, and chasing her through the forest while calling loudly.
Should she accept, the two will form a monogamous pair, staying together for the full breeding season and often reconnecting the following spring.
Once mated, the Red-breasted Sapsucker pair then gets to work searching the forest for a suitable nest tree. They prefer standing dead snags or sections of dead wood in otherwise living trees, and typically select a deciduous tree like an alder, cottonwood, maple, aspen, or willow, though conifers like hemlocks and pines are sometimes used.
The chosen nest site is usually quite high in the tree, typically between 50 and 60 feet off the ground. The male excavates the nest in April or May, hollowing out a 6 to 10-inch deep and 4- to 5-inch wide gourd-shaped cavity with a 1.25 to 1.5-inch opening. He then lines the nest with wood chips.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers do not reuse their old nest cavities, instead constructing a new one each year.
The female Red-breasted Sapsucker lays a typical clutch of 4 to 5 slightly glossy oval eggs, sometimes laying up to 7. As with all woodpeckers, the eggs are white as camouflage in the dark nest interior is not necessary, and, in fact, the bright color may help the parents find the eggs within the dim cavity. Both the male and female incubate the eggs.
After 14 to 15 days, the eggs hatch around the same time. Hatchlings are altricial – that is, naked and helpless – when they first emerge but grow quickly. Both parents diligently feed the young and they leave the nest at just 23 to 28 days old, though they remain with their parents for several more weeks, learning the ropes of life.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Habits
Red-breasted Sapsuckers spend much of their lives foraging for insects in the forest, making regular stops to add to or feed on their sap wells.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers fly from tree to tree in their territories, climbing up and down trunks searching for insects in crevices by probing and peeling bark, checking their sap wells, or snatching insects out of the air like flycatchers.
Sap Well Construction
Red-breasted Sapsuckers drill a series of tiny, shallow parallel holes in deciduous trees like alders, aspens, willows, maples, and cherries. They then use their specialized brush-tipped tongues to collect the sap that flows and feast on the insects the sap attracts. Sapsuckers check their sap wells regularly throughout the day and staking one out is a great way to view these beautiful birds.
While sap wells can kill trees – especially if the holes encircle and girdle the trunk – sapsuckers are actually very beneficial to the forest ecosystem. Many species of birds, mammals, and insects use their sap wells as a food source. In fact, Rufous Hummingbirds that arrive on their breeding grounds before the flowers bloom often follow Red-breasted Sapsuckers around the forest to find their wells, relying on the sugary sap to stay alive when no other food is available.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers spend most of their time near their sap wells and both males and females will aggressively defend their reliable food source from hungry mammals and birds. Defensive posturing includes loud calls, violent head thrusts, and agitated wing flicks. They also defend their nests and young.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Predators
Adult Red-breasted Sapsuckers are small and agile but can fall prey to stealthy woodland bird-eating raptors like Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and Red-shouldered Hawks.
Coyotes, bobcats, martens, fishers, and foxes will also make a meal out of them if they can. Nestlings are relatively safe in their tree cavities high off the ground, but some snakes and climbing mammals like raccoons and fishers can access the nest and threaten eggs and young.
Being birds of mature forests, habitat loss at the hands of humans remains the biggest threat to their survival.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Lifespan
The oldest wild Red-breasted Sapsucker was at least 5 years old.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Population
Currently, Red-breasted Sapsuckers are fairly common birds with stable populations throughout their range. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their numbers increased slightly from 1968 to 2015, though more current numbers show that populations are in a slight decline due to habitat loss. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.8 million Red-breasted Sapsuckers.
Is the Red-breasted Sapsucker Endangered?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Red-breasted Sapsucker as a species of Least Concern in 2018, meaning it is not yet at immediate risk of extinction. Historically, sapsuckers were considered an orchard pest and birds were shot regularly. However, under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the species has recovered.
Deforestation – especially rampant logging in the Pacific Northwest – and the modern forestry practice of removing standing dead trees could negatively impact the species in the future as habitat and nest sites are eliminated. Like all forest-dwelling birds, Red-breasted Sapsucker populations are only as stable as the habitats they depend on for survival.
Answer: Yes, Red-breasted Sapsuckers can hurt trees due to their foraging strategy of drilling a series of small holes in trees to access their sap. Since sap is essentially the lifeblood of trees, excessive drilling can stunt their growth or even kill a tree if the birds manage to encircle the trunk with holes, girdling it and making it impossible for the tree to transport sap. For the most part, however, sapsuckers create their sap wells on several trees, meaning damage to each is minimized. They are beneficial to forest ecosystems, as their sap wells provide many other species of birds, mammals, and insects with food. Sapsuckers can be deterred from cultivated trees by wrapping the trunk in burlap, applying sticky repellents to the bark, or hanging shiny objects like CDs and streamers nearby to scare the birds.
Answer: Almost! Red-breasted Sapsuckers are part of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker complex and were once considered to be the same species. In 1983, taxonomists divided the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker into three species: the Red-naped Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The three species are similar in appearance and behavior and often interbreed, creating hybrids that are nearly impossible to identify to species. They are best distinguished by their habitats and ranges, with the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker being an eastern North American species and the Red-breasted Sapsucker found exclusively on the west coast.
Answer: The best way to attract a Red-breasted Sapsucker is to provide suitable habitat. If you live in the species’ range, consider keeping your yard natural and forested. Plant their favorite deciduous trees like aspens, willows, cherries, and maples and you’ll soon see a row of parallel holes in the trunk as a local sapsucker begins constructing a sap well. Leave standing dead trees intact to provide nesting habitat. Also, offer water, suet, and berries to encourage sapsuckers to forage in your yard.
- Alderfer, J., et al. (2006). Complete Birds of North America (2nd Edition). National Geographic Society.
- Baicich, P.J. & Harrison, C.J.O. (2005). Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (2nd Edition). Princeton University Press.
- Kaufman, K. (1996). Lives of North American Birds (1st Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Sibley, D.A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- Sibley, D.A. (2001). The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (1st Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-breasted_Sapsucker/id
- The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22680874/130036416
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-breasted_sapsucker
Looking for more interesting readings? Check out:
- Arizona Woodpecker Guide (Leuconotopicus arizonae)
- Black and White Woodpeckers Guide
- Red-bellied Woodpecker Guide
- Yellow-Bellied Woodpecker Guide: All You Need to Know about the Migratory Woodpecker with a Sweet Tooth
- Lewis’s Woodpecker Guide (Melanerpes Lewis)
- Nuttall’s Woodpecker Guide (Dryobates nuttallii)