A medium-sized woodpecker, the Red-Breasted Sapsucker was formerly considered the same species as the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and the Red-Naped Sapsucker, but all of these birds have now been split into distinct species in the Picidae bird family. Knowing what makes each one unique is a great way for birders to learn more about these colorful woodpeckers, and this fact sheet about the Red-Breasted Sapsucker is a great way to discover this bold and beautiful western woodpecker.
- Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus ruber
- Common Name: Red-Breasted Sapsucker, Red-Breasted Woodpecker
- Lifespan: 2-3 years
- Size: 8-9 inches
- Weight: 1.4-2.4 ounces
- Wingspan: 14-16 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Red-Breasted Sapsucker Identification
This bird's upright posture, stiff tail, stout black bill, and overall jizz easily identify it as a woodpecker. Birders have to look more closely at specialized field marks, however, to be sure they're seeing a Red-Breasted Sapsucker.
Genders are similar with a bright red hood that extends to the throat and upper breast. A white or buff patch at the base of the bill may extend to a moustache appearance on some birds, but this is highly variable. The black back has small buff-yellow spots down the center, and the black wings have a bold white slash-like patch along the edge. The rump is white, and the abdomen is yellow or whitish-yellow with fine black streaking. The undertail coverts are white with black streaks. The forked tail has black outer feathers and white inner feathers with black barring. The lower abdomen can appear grayish or yellowish.
The color intensity can vary between different populations and subspecies, and southern subspecies typically show more white than northern birds, particularly on the back. Juveniles are much more brownish overall, with a dark red or red-brown wash on the face and breast. A white moustache is more pronounced on immature woodpeckers.
These woodpeckers are usually silent except when courting mates. The typical call is a sharp, drawn-out mew that may have a piercing quality. The drumming pattern is usually relatively slow, with slightly faster beats in the beginning and an irregular overall pattern that includes both single and double beats toward the end.
Red-Breasted Sapsucker Habitat and Distribution
These woodpeckers prefer relatively moist forests with either coniferous or mixed coniferous and deciduous trees, particularly aspens, ponderosa pines, spruces, and hemlocks. Red-Breasted Sapsuckers are found year-round along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska through coastal British Columbia and Vancouver Island and as far south as the western portions of Washington and Oregon as well as northern California.
Vagrant sightings are rarely recorded much further inland than this bird's expected range, including as far east as Texas.
While not all of these woodpeckers migrate, mountain populations generally stay at mid- or low-level elevations, and will altitudinally migrate to avoid the harshest northern winter weather, even though they stay within the same year-round range. In non-mountain populations, these woodpeckers may expand their summer breeding range slightly further north and significantly more inland throughout British Columbia. In winter, these woodpeckers move further south to southern Nevada, southwestern Arizona, and northern Baja.
These woodpeckers are generally solitary or may be found in pairs during the breeding season. In flight, they alternate rapid wing beats with brief glides, giving their flight path a wave-like up-and-down, up-and-down pattern very characteristic of most woodpeckers.
Diet and Feeding
Red-Breasted Sapsuckers are generally mucivorous and eat primarily sap and nectar, though they also include insects in their diet for protein. They will also eat fruit and berries, particularly in late fall when insects and sap are not as abundant. These woodpeckers use a variety of foraging techniques, including probing, gleaning, stripping bark to encourage sap flow, and drilling an even series of holes they can revisit for sap and insects. Different birds will also visit those sap wells, including hummingbirds, warblers, and other woodpecker species.
These woodpeckers are monogamous and generally nest either alone or in small colonies. They are cavity-nesting birds and the male partner excavates the cavity, usually from 15-100 feet above the ground with a 1.5-inch entrance hole. No nesting material is typically used, but a few wood chips may remain in the nesting cavity after the excavation.
Eggs and Young
The eggs are plain, matte white and may be either oval or elliptical. There are 3-7 eggs in each brood, and both parents share incubation duties for 8-12 days, though the exact ratio of how much incubation time the male or female parent has is not well studied. After the chicks hatch, both parents feed them for 23-32 days, and after the young birds leave the nest, the parents continue to offer guidance as the young woodpeckers learn to drill their own sap wells and discover other food sources. Only one brood is raised each year.
These woodpeckers easily hybridize with Red-Naped Sapsuckers and Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers. This can make identification between the species difficult as the resulting offspring may show uncertain or indistinct colors and markings from both parents.
Red-Breasted Sapsucker Conservation
While these woodpeckers are not considered threatened or endangered, they have historically been persecuted as orchard pests, since frequent sap well drilling can eventually kill fruit-bearing trees or otherwise reduce tree productivity and harvests. Red-Breasted Sapsuckers are now protected from such persecution, but logging activities and snag (dead tree) removal still pose a threat to their overall population numbers. Preserving snags and other nesting sites is essential to protect these birds and help their population growth.
Tips for Backyard Birders
These woodpeckers may visit yards and gardens where large nectar feeders are available, as well as suet feeders or fruit trees. Mature trees and snags can also attract red-breasted sapsuckers. Planting berry bushes is another way to provide fruit for these birds and can help make them welcome in the yard, and birders can take other steps to attract woodpeckers.
How to Find This Bird
Woodpeckers can be challenging to find in the field, but scanning trees for lines of small, evenly-spaced holes can alert birders that Red-Breasted Sapsuckers are active in the area. Watch for the birds to revisit the same trees, and listen for their drumming pattern in late spring and early summer to help locate these woodpeckers.
Explore More Species in This Family
There are many other woodpeckers in the Picidae family that are favorites of birders, and learning more woodpecker facts is a great way to discover all that is unique and interesting about these birds. Don't miss other close relatives of the Red-Breasted Sapsucker, including:
BirdLife International. Sphyrapicus Ruber. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 2018. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22680874A130036416.en
Red-Breasted Sapsucker Overview. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Producing Fruit Trees for Home Use. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.