Red-breasted Sapsucker

Bird of the Month: -breasted Sapsucker

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Red-breasted Sapsucker)

PC: Mick Thompson (Red-breasted Sapsucker)

Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus ruber

Length 8.5 in

Wingspan 16 in

AOU Band code RBSA

The Red-breasted Sapsucker (RBSA) is about 8.5” long with a wingspan or 16”. The genus name Sphyrapicus (sfie-rah-PIE-kus) is from Greek spyhra, a hammer, or mallet, in reference to the bill and its use, and Latin picus, a woodpecker. The species name ruber (RUBE-er) is Latin, red, in reference to the red of the hood. It is a very close relative of the Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers and was considered to belong to the same species for some time. The RBSA has a red head and breast with a whitish mark over the bill which may extend onto the cheek. There is an elongated white patch on the shoulder (typical of sapsuckers) of black wings. The central belly is yellowish with streaked flanks.

In flight the white rump and shoulder patches will be noted. Both sexes look alike. During the summer on the northwest coast, the RBSA is often found in forest of hemlock or spruce. Farther south in the mountains it is found in pine forests with a mixture of deciduous trees. In the winter some move south or into lowlands. Living in a relatively temperate climate, this is the least migratory of the sapsuckers. In the Pacific Northwest, birds from the interior may move to the coast or southward; coastal birds may be permanent residents. Southern birds may move to lower elevations or a short distance south in the winter. This species may interbreed with either the Red-naped or Yellow-bellied in the limited areas where their summer ranges overlap. Hybrids produced in these areas may appear east of the range of the RBSA in winter.

The sapsucker drills rows of shallow holes in tree bark, returning to drink sap and eat insects. Rufous Hummingbirds drink from sapsucker holes and may depend on this sap for early spring food when it migrates north. They usually nest in a hole in a deciduous tree, but may be in firs and other conifers. Entrance hole is usually 1-1/4 to 1-1/2” in diameter. The nest cavity is often high, up to 50-60 feet above ground. Three to six white eggs are laid. Incubation is 12-13 days and the young fledge in 25-29 days. The voice is a series of “cheer” calls, or a “weep weep” call. The drumming is a short burst followed by irregular beats, like “tatatat tatat tatat”.