- Buff-bellied Hummingbird Guide - November 12, 2022
- Broad-billed Hummingbird Guide (Cynanthus latirostris) - November 8, 2022
- Red-naped Sapsucker Guide (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) - November 1, 2022
Early in my bird-watching hobby, I was hiking in the woods of Colorado when I came across a tree with a dozen or so small holes drilled into it. The holes were very uniform and orderly, laid out in an almost perfect line. A while later, I came across another tree with a similar pattern of holes. “Who is drilling holes into these trees, and why?” I wondered to myself as I continued my hike.
Checking my field guide, I determined that the perpetrator of this tree vandalism was a Red-naped Sapsucker. I snapped some photos and continued on my trek. Returning home from my hike, I read some more about this bird that was new to me. I learned that the Red-naped Sapsucker and I have several similarities.
We both like to stay active–rising early in the morning to begin our busy day. We like to keep things orderly–the Red-naped Sapsucker’s holes are amazingly consistent in size and shape and laid out neatly in lines or grids. Lastly, we both have a bit of a sweet tooth. I was very impressed with this bird, and now, I always keep my eyes open for the tell-tale patterns of holes or the distinctive telegraph-like drumming that may alert me to the presence of a Red-naped sapsucker.
The Red-naped Sapsucker got its name from the red patch on the back of its head, along with its taste for the sugary sap it gets from the holes it drills in trees (although it doesn’t suck up the sap as its name suggests–rather, it laps it up). The species name for the Red-naped Sapsucker is Sphyrapicus nuchalis, which has no sub-species.
It is very closely related to the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-breasted Sapsucker. These birds were considered one species until the 1980s when closer studies and analysis led to the Red-naped Sapsucker being identified as a distinct species.
Taxonomy at a Glance
The complete taxonomic classifications of the Red-naped Sapsucker are as follows:
- Domain: Eukaryota
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Piciformes
- Family: Picidae
- Genus: Sphyrapicus
- Species: Sphyrapicus nuchalis
How to Identify the Red-naped Sapsucker
In their geographic range, Red-naped Sapsuckers are not an uncommon sight. They are medium-sized birds, roughly 8.5 inches in length, with a wingspan of about 16 inches. An adult Red-naped Sapsucker typically weighs anywhere from 1 to 2.5 ounces. They have a typical “woodpecker” body shape, with stiff tails that they use to brace themselves when perched against the side of a tree.
The coloring of Red-naped Sapsuckers is primarily black and white, with some splashes of vibrant red. Their wings and back are mostly black, with white markings forming a vertical stripe on each wing when folded. Their bellies are white, with some mottled black markings on the sides. The white areas of their belly and back may also have some very slight yellow coloring… like an old white t-shirt that has started to turn a dingy yellow!
They have sharply defined black and white stripes on their face and a black patch on their upper chest below their throat. The red highlights can be found on their neck and head–they have a bright red cap on the front top of their head, another red patch on their throat, and lastly, a smaller red patch on the back of their head (from which they get their “Red-naped” descriptor).
Females vs. Males
Females may differ slightly from males in that they also have a white patch on their throat, situated just below their beak and above the red patch on their throat. Males do not have this white patch on their throats. However, occasionally females won’t have this patch either, which can make a definite determination of gender a bit tricky!
Juveniles have a different color scheme, with a much more brownish tone to their coloring and brownish or rusty patches instead of red patches on their head and throat. Young Red-naped Sapsuckers will not have the sharply contrasting black-and-white coloring and bright red patches until they have matured into adulthood.
In flight, Red-naped Sapsuckers follow a flight pattern similar to many other woodpeckers–a wavy undulating flight path in which they alternate between quickly flapping their wings and taking it easy and gliding for a short distance. You can often spot them flying in this manner as they travel from tree to tree in their habitats, checking on their food sources.
Sounds of a Red-naped Sapsucker
Like many woodpecker species, the Red-naped Sapsucker can often be initially located by sound cues. The drumming of a Red-naped Sapsucker has a very distinctive sound and rhythm–a slow and steady knocking that varies a bit in tempo but is generally slower-paced than the drumming of many other woodpecker species.
They also have several vocalizations that you can listen to. One is a high, almost whiny waah cry, like the sound of an angry or frightened kitten, which they will make when perched. While flying, they might make a rapid squawking sound. Young Red-naped Sapsuckers will often cry loudly for food as well. All of these sounds can be used to help locate and identify these birds in the wild.
Where Does the Red-naped Sapsucker Live: Habitat
The geographic range of the Red-naped Sapsucker follows closely along the Rocky Mountain range, stretching from the Canadian Rockies down through the United States and into northwestern Mexico. This geographic range sandwiches them between their cousins, the Red-breasted Sapsuckers who live along the United States West Coast, and the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers who reside in central and eastern regions of Canada and the United States.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are migratory, traveling some distance between their summer and winter habitats. They winter in the southern parts of their geographic range (northwest Mexico and southwest United States), traveling to the northern part and higher elevations of their range (the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada) during their breeding season, April through August. Red-naped Sapsuckers will return to the same area (and sometimes even the same tree) each year and will not stray far from their north-south migration pathway.
Red-naped Sapsuckers seek out mixed forests and woodlands for nesting and feeding. Their favorite tree types include Pine, Fir, Juniper, Larch, Cottonwood, and especially Aspen. They will make do with other tree types if necessary, taking up in orchards or wooded areas near water when they find them, especially at lower elevations.
Red-naped Sapsucker Diet and Feeding
Red-naped Sapsuckers have a definite sweet tooth–a primary part of their diet consists of sugary sap from source trees. They will drill a series of small quarter-inch holes into the surface of a tree… these “sap wells” will collect the sap that oozes from the tree as it attempts to heal itself. The Red-naped Sapsucker will drill these sap wells into several trees in its feeding territory.
It will then regularly patrol its feeding territory, dining on the sap it finds on the targeted trees. Contrary to their name, Red-naped Sapsuckers do not actually suck the sap out of trees– instead, they lap up the sap collected in the sap wells over time with their tongues. The wells only create sap for a few days… after they are tapped out, a Red-naped Sapsucker will often drill a new row of wells adjacent to the previous wells, essentially continuing to collect sap from the same tree.
As they patrol their multiple feeding sites, Red-naped Sapsuckers are not only collecting food. Much of their time and energy is spent defending their sap wells from other creatures that might enjoy the sugary food source. Hummingbirds, other sapsuckers, squirrels, and other mammals are not above following a Sapsucker around and trying to sneak a quick snack from the sap wells.
Other Parts of Their Diet
Sap is not the only food Red-naped Sapsuckers enjoy–their diet also includes protein in the form of insects that are attracted to the oozing sap. When visiting its sap wells, a Red-naped Sapsucker will also eat bugs that have become trapped in the sticky sap or might be wandering about nearby on the surface of the tree. They can also catch flying insects in mid-air for a quick bite.
In addition to the sap and insects, Red-naped Sapsuckers supplement and balance their diet with berries and fruit, particularly in the winter. They are also occasional visitors to backyard feeders, particularly suet feeders, especially during their migrations.
Red-naped Sapsucker Breeding
The breeding territories for Red-naped Sapsuckers are typically mixed woodlands in the Rocky Mountain regions of the United States and Canada. The birds begin arriving at their breeding and nesting grounds in March-April.
During courtship, males and females will strike up poses that show off their feathers and colors. They will raise their crests, spread their wings, and raise their heads, all to show off for the opposite sex. They will also chase potential mates around trees, showing interest in pairing up. Red-naped Sapsuckers will also broadcast their interest audibly via drumming or vocalizations such as a high-pitched squeal.
Once paired up, Red-naped Sapsuckers are monogamous for the breeding season. Pairs will sometimes remain monogamous for multiple seasons, though this may be more a result of returning to the same nesting tree than seeking out the same partner.
Red-naped Sapsucker Nesting
A Red-naped Sapsucker pair will begin creating their nest cavity. The male and female share the work of excavating the nest cavity. They will select a live or dead tree, ideally a foot or more in diameter, as the nest’s location. If nesting in a live tree, Red-naped Sapsuckers often prefer a tree infected with heart rot, a fungus that softens the inner wood of the tree, making it easier to drill into and excavate. The types of trees preferred for nesting include Aspen, Pine, Birch, Fir, Cottonwood, and Larch.
The nest may range from a few feet to over fifty or sixty feet above the ground. Birds will often increase the nest’s height year after year. They also often return to the same tree year after year for nesting. Red-naped Sapsuckers will sometimes use an existing cavity or even re-use an old nest as the location for their new nest. Otherwise, they will start excavating the new nest cavity from scratch.
It can take anywhere from one to four weeks for a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers to complete their nest. Once completed, the nest cavity is typically 4-5 inches wide, with an entry hole around 1.5 inches in diameter. The inside of the nest is lined only with wood chips that were produced during the excavation process.
Red-naped Sapsucker Eggs
Once the nest is completed, the Red-naped Sapsuckers are ready to raise their brood. The female lays between three and seven eggs (usually four or five). The Sapsucker eggs are oval, about an inch long, and plain white. Once the eggs are laid in the nest, the female and male take turns incubating them, with the male usually staying with them at night.
At least one of the parents will almost always be in the nest to protect the eggs from would-be predators. After almost two weeks of incubation (generally ten to twelve days), the young birds will begin to hatch.
Upon hatching, the baby Red-naped Sapsuckers are helpless, with no feathers and unable to fly. The parents share the feeding duties, making food runs to get the sap, insects, or fruit to bring back to feed their young ones. The parents will feed the fledglings in the nest for about four weeks, by which time the young birds will have matured enough to begin leaving the nest.
The parents will continue to feed the young birds for about ten days after they depart from the nest. The adult birds will also educate their young ones in the art of drilling the sap wells on trees, taking them to trees in the area, and leading by example. Once the young Red-naped Sapsuckers have learned these skills, they are ready to strike out independently.
Red-naped Sapsucker Population
Red-naped Sapsuckers can be commonly found in their geographic range. The total global population of Red-naped Sapsuckers has been estimated to be around two million by the organization Partners In Flight.
Is the Red-naped Sapsucker Endangered?
Historically, the Red-naped Sapsucker was considered a pest and a menace to trees and would often be shot if seen in orchards. However, like other birds, it is now protected from being hunted or shot. Thankfully, the population estimates for this species have been relatively stable over the past fifty-plus years, as determined by birding surveys.
The Red-naped Sapsucker has been given a Continental Concern score of 9 out of 20 by Partners in Flight, which indicates a low-to-moderate level of concern for endangerment.
The Red-naped Sapsucker is affected by the availability of satisfactory trees for nesting and feeding, so events and activities that affect the abundance of these trees, such as logging or forest fires, can have a detrimental impact on the ability of Red-naped Sapsuckers to thrive. Logging practices such as leaving some standing trees in logging areas can mitigate the impact on these birds, as they will readily nest in logging areas if a few trees are still available.
Red-naped Sapsucker Habits
The most visible habit of the Red-naped Sapsucker is its drilling of sap wells on trees. These holes, often laid out in lines or grids, are an essential part of its routine and play an important part in its survival. The Red-naped Sapsucker will drill sap wells on many trees in its feeding territory, but the work does not stop there.
Defending Their Wells
The bird must then vigorously patrol its territory, regularly visiting the sap wells to get sap and insects for food. They must also defend these food sources from other opportunistic animals, such as hummingbirds, squirrels, or other Sapsuckers, looking to take advantage of their hard work.
Hummingbirds, in particular, have been known to follow Sapsuckers around as they make the rounds in their feeding areas, swooping in to grab some sap when a Sapsucker is not looking. When a series of sap wells run dry, the Red-naped Sapsucker will drill a new set of wells on the same tree.
How They Suck Sap
As previously mentioned, the Red-naped Sapsucker does not suck the sap out of trees like some avian vampire! Instead, they lap up the sap that collects in the sap wells with their tongues, uniquely designed for this activity. The tongue of a Red-naped Sapsucker is covered in little bristles on its tip. These bristles function almost like a paintbrush, allowing the Sapsucker to sop up the maximum amount of liquid as it laps up the yummy sap.
Other Animals Use Their Nests
The sap wells of the Red-naped Sapsucker aren’t the only things that other animals appreciate; the nests that Red-naped Sapsucker build are also a very hot commodity to other woodland creatures. Small birds, like Chickadees, Mountain Bluebirds, and Nuthatches, will readily nest in tree cavities but do not have the beaks required to build them for themselves.
Because of this, they are more than happy to move into a Sapsucker nest that has been vacated. Birds are not the only animals that will use abandoned Sapsucker nest cavities–small mammals like mice, squirrels, and weasels will also happily make an old Sapsucker nest their home. Sapsucker nests are like the AirBnBs of the forest!
Red-Naped Sapsuckers are considered a “keystone species,” meaning their presence in the environment is critical to many other species. Many other creatures make use of, or even rely on, the activities of this dynamic bird species. The sap wells created by Red-naped Sapsuckers provide food for many other species of insects, birds, and even mammals. Other birds and small mammals re-use the nests they build. Because of this, Red-naped Sapsuckers have a very outsized and beneficial impact on their habitats.
A Unique Drumming Style
Another distinctive activity of the Red-naped Sapsucker is its unique drumming style. While drumming is common among woodpecker species, the tempo and style of the Red-naped Sapsuckers drumming is quite recognizable. Their drumming is a bit slower and more deliberate than the drumming sounds of other woodpecker species. If you listen to the tap-tap-tap of a Red-naped Sapsucker, you would swear it is sending out some sort of Morse Code message!
Red-naped Sapsuckers will breed with other Sapsucker species, like the Red-breasted or Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, in the minimal areas where their ranges overlap. These pairings result in hybrid offspring that often mix the colors and markings of their parents.
Red-naped Sapsucker Predators
Adult Red-naped Sapsuckers are not particularly susceptible to predators, but they must remain wary of larger prey birds in their areas, such as hawks. However, eggs or fledgling birds are at more risk from predators. Squirrels that come across a nest pose a risk, as they will make a meal out of eggs or very young Sapsucker offspring.
Bears have even been known to try to get at a brood of young Sapsuckers, but usually, they cannot breach the protective shell of the tree containing the nest. Because baby Red-naped Sapsuckers squeal incessantly to be fed, they do call attention to themselves at this vulnerable stage. For this reason, at least one parent is usually at the nest, ready to fend off any would-be predators.
A more significant risk to Red-naped Sapsuckers is the loss of suitable habitat. Forest fires that kill off large swaths of trees reduce these birds’ nesting and feeding options. Logging also removes trees from their habitats, but more refined logging practices, such as leaving some standing trees in the logging area, have helped to reduce the impact on the Red-naped Sapsuckers.
Red-naped Sapsucker Lifespan
The oldest documented Red-naped Sapsucker was just under five years old. This bird was captured in Wyoming, banded, and later captured years later. However, as with any bird in the wild, the average lifespan is likely less than this, probably in the three to four-year range.
Answer: The “red-naped” part of their name comes from the red coloring on the back (or “nape) of their head or neck. The “sapsucker” part comes from their strong preference for eating the sap that they collect from trees, although as previously described they do not suck the sap from the tree. I guess “saplapper” just didn’t have as good a ring to it!
Answer: Believe it or not, a group of Sapsuckers is called a “slurp,” which seems very appropriate!
Answer: There are several visual and audible clues that can alert you to the presence of a Red-naped Sapsucker in your vicinity. First, listen for their steady telegraph-like drumming; if you hear it, head in its direction. Also, look for their patterns of sap wells on trees–these are a giveaway that a Sapsucker has been around.
You may see them as they move around on trees, checking their sap wells for food or moving about catching insects. If they are in flight, look for their flashes of black and white as they fly in their uneven flight path, flapping and then gliding as they travel from tree to tree.
Answer: Red-naped Sapsuckers are very similar in appearance to their Red-breasted and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker relatives. As is often the case, geography is the first indicator of what kind of Sapsucker you may see since their ranges only overlap in limited areas.
There are some visual clues if you are in an area where more than one species is found. While an adult Red-naped Sapsucker has three red patches on its head and throat, an adult Red-breasted Sapsucker’s entire head, throat, and breast are red (thus the name “Red-breasted”). Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers do not have the red patch on the back of their head/neck that the Red-naped Sapsuckers have.
Answer: Suet feeders can attract Red-naped Sapsuckers, mainly if you are on their migration route. They will happily stop by for a quick and easy meal. If you live in an area where they nest, having a mix of trees, especially Aspens, can attract them. However, be aware that this might also encourage them to make one of your trees a target for their sap well drilling activity.
Answer: Most healthy trees survive sap well drilling done by a Red-naped Sapsucker. However, as you might expect, this activity does put the tree at risk. While the holes themselves will not typically kill a tree, these open wounds make it easier for invasive diseases or insects to access the tree’s interior, which can be detrimental to its health in the long run. The sap wells are also very visible, so some people may not like to see these showing up on an ornamental tree on their property.
To discourage Sapsucker drilling on a tree or protect it once drilling has started, you can wrap the tree in burlap or another heavy fabric. You might also try to hang shiny or moving objects to ward off Sapsuckers, but they might just move to another part of the tree or another tree in the area. If possible, just try to enjoy and appreciate the Sapsucker’s presence and activity as part of the big adventure of nature!
- Peterson, Roger Tory. (2010). Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (4th Edition). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
- Roedel, Michael, et al. (2007). Compact Guide to Colorado Birds. Lone Pine Publishing International.
- Tekiela, Stan. (2021). Birds of Colorado Field Guide (2nd Edition). Adventure Publications.
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