Bird Lore: Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Photos by Carol Riddell)
Red-breasted Sapsucker (Photos by Carol Riddell)

The Red-breasted Sapsucker is a resident woodpecker of Edmonds. It is seen more frequently in some years than in others. It prefers conifer forests with a mix of deciduous trees. Over-ripe fruit, left on an apple tree through winter, will attract this sapsucker. It can be found in most Edmonds parks and wooded neighborhoods. It ranges from Southeast Alaska through Northern California, mostly staying west of the Pacific Crest.

Insects, tree sap and fruit make up the Red-breasted Sapsucker’s diet. Its active sap wells attract both Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds, which also feed on the sap. You can see a neat line of four sap wells in the first photo. This sapsucker gleans insects from tree trunks and also flies out to catch them in mid-air. The bird in the second photo has a bill full of bugs that it was taking back to a nest of young birds.

red-breasted-sapsucker-5-29-15Courtship behavior is not well known in the Red-breast Sapsucker. Because the male and female look alike, it is thought that it needs to engage in behavior that will allow each sex to recognize the other. Its nest site is a cavity, usually high in a deciduous tree or snag. Both sexes excavate the nest cavity. The bird in the third photo is working on such a cavity in Pine Ridge Park.

dsc_8959Ornithologists considered the Red-breasted Sapsucker to be a subspecies of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker until the early 1980s. It is thought that its nesting behavior is similar to that of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker but there is a need for more research. The female lays four to seven eggs in the nest cavity. Both sexes probably incubate the eggs and both sexes bring food to the young birds. Once the young are out of the nest, the parents teach them how to drill sap holes. There is probably one brood per year.

The oldest known Red-breasted Sapsucker was at least five years of age when found after being hit by a car in British Columbia. Because sapsuckers slurp the sap from the wells they drill, the collective noun for a group of sapsuckers is a slurp.

Estimates of the Red-breasted Sapsucker population are about two million birds. Between 1996 and 2014 the population has been stable. About 68 percent of the population spends some time in the U.S., 45 percent in Canada, and 5 percent breeding in Mexico. It is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Although this sapsucker is now protected, historically it was shot as an orchard pest. Removal of snags may decrease its abundance in particular areas.

You can hear the calls of a pair of Red-breasted Sapsuckers, recorded in Brier, Wash., here: A series of drumming, recorded in Issaquah, are here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

4 Replies to “Bird Lore: Red-breasted Sapsucker”

  1. Your columns and pictures are so enjoyable and informative. Thank you!
    We had sapsuckers at our former home. I do miss seeing them now that we are downtown.


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