For the Birds: Red-breasted Sapsucker- The fifth local woodpecker

Friday, October 14, 2011

Red-breasted Sapsucker.  Photo by Christine Southwick.
By Christine Southwick

There’s a bird with a bright red head high up in your cottonwood tree that acts like some kind of woodpecker. It is too small to be a Pileated Woodpecker. What is it?

In our area it is a Red-breasted Sapsucker. One diagnostic field mark is the vertical white stripe running up its side. Only sapsuckers have this white stripe.

There are two other sapsuckers in Washington: the Red-naped, mostly in eastern WA; and the Yellow-bellied sapsucker, further north; before 1985 they were considered one species. Being mostly non-migratory, only the Red-breasted Sapsucker is regularly seen here in the winter.

Rows of neat holes show the presence of a sapsucker.  Photo by Suzanne Tomassi.

Sapsuckers drill neat horizontal rows of holes in large healthy trees, and return repeatedly to feed on the running sap and the insects that get caught in the sap. They also eat some berries and seeds.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are considered a keystone species, because so many other species take advantage of their sap wells. Both Anna’s and Rufus hummingbirds eat the bugs, and a little of the sugary sap. Rufus Hummingbirds commonly build nests near a Sapsucker tree—like living near a neighborhood deli.

Whereas Red-breasted Sapsuckers prefer dense old growth forests with large dead trees, they will use second growth forests that have large nesting trees. They can use large cottonwoods in riparian habitats, if necessary.

...their drumming sounds like someone learning to use a hammer...
two Red-breasted Sapsuckers compared to a Northern Flicker.
Photo by Christine Southwick

Because their nests are high, 50-60 feet above ground, not much is known about Red-breasted Sapsuckers nesting behavior. Single-season nest cavities are started about April, usually in deciduous trees like Aspen or Cottonwood, with both members of the year-round monogamous pair excavating the nest hole. Both male and female incubate the 4-7 eggs , feed their nestlings insects, and teach the fledglings to drill holes and survive.

Except while establishing territory, or excavating a nest, these are relatively quiet woodpeckers. They have a squeal-like call, and their drumming sounds like someone learning to use a hammer, maybe because they have to move make the next sap well.

A juvenile sapsucker.  Photo by Doug Parrott.
Males and females look alike. The juveniles have a brown head, and an over-all brownish color, as compared to the bright black of the adults.

So, if you hear an irregular tapping, look at tree trunks, or maybe old telephone poles, and if you see a red-headed bird smaller than a flicker, but larger than a downy, it is our native Red-breasted Sapsucker. Their sap tree could be near by…

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Anonymous,  October 14, 2011 at 10:31 AM  

Does their pecking harm the tree in any way?

Anonymous,  October 14, 2011 at 10:58 AM  

They're hurting trees? Let's take those ba****ds down!

Anonymous,  October 14, 2011 at 11:07 AM  

Oh, come on; no need to be an ass. I've got a tree that looks quite a bit like the picture above, and I was a little worried about it. If there was anything I could do to help it *without harming the birds,* I would.

Anonymous,  October 14, 2011 at 1:57 PM  

The drilling does not harm the trees. Generally, if the tree is in decline, there are many other reasons than a woodpecker's activity on it (any woodpecker, not just the sapsucker)that are creating this decline.

The sapsucker is just creating sap wells for food. Other woodpeckers excavate to get at insect infestations (again, not a result of the woodpecker; but the woodpecker utilizing a situation of a concentrated spot of insects as a food "trough").

Insects are attracted to the declining tree. Woodpeckers are attacted to the insects.

Declining trees, or snags, are great wildlife condos. They should be retained when they don't pose a hazard. Great one-stop wildlife feature for all kinds of wildlife, not just birds!

Check out this link for more information on snag or "wildlife tree" management if you have concerns about declining trees or just want to know more about their wildlife value:

Happy wildlife watching!

Anonymous,  October 14, 2011 at 2:08 PM  

Great to know; thank you!

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