Skip to main content

Red-breasted Sapsucker Life History


ForestsThe Red-breasted Sapsucker can be found from sea level to 8,700 feet (2,900 meters) in elevation. They are especially common in coniferous forests of pine and hemlock, but also use old-growth and second-growth forests, orchards, and powerline rights-of-way. In the winter, they move to a more coastal habitat and use a wide variety of both deciduous and coniferous woodlands. Back to top


InsectsRed-breasted Sapsuckers eat sap, insects and other arthropods, fruit, and seeds. Their tongues are shorter than those of other woodpeckers, with brushy tips that help them lap up sap. They spend far less time drilling into wood than many other woodpeckers, and instead pick insects (especially ants and beetles) from crevices in the bark or from sapwells. They also fly out to catch insects in midair. Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityThe Red-breasted Sapsucker excavates a cavity in a dead tree or dead portions of live trees including hemlocks, quaking aspens, broadleaf maples, and various species of pines.

Nest Description

Red-breasted Sapsucker nest holes are approximately 2 inches in diameter at the entrance. The cavity itself is around 10 inches deep. They lay their eggs on a bed of wood chips.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2.1-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.8 in (1.6-2 cm)
Incubation Period:14-15 days
Nestling Period:23-28 days
Egg Description:White.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and helpless.
Back to top


Bark Forager

Like many other woodpeckers, the Red-breasted Sapsucker hitches up and down tree trunks and along tree limbs or rail fences. They fly with an undulating pattern, alternating flapping and gliding. Unique to sapsuckers is the way in which they drill shallow holes in trees to facilitate the flow of sap, which they then lap up using specialized brush-tipped tongues. Both males and females spend most of their time near their wells, and guard them from other sapsuckers, bird species, and mammals. This aggressive defense is accompanied by head thrusting, wing flicking, and loud calls. Similar behavior is seen in early spring, when males court mates by chasing them through the trees and calling loudly. Pairs are socially monogamous. Pair bonds are maintained throughout the breeding season and occasionally re-established in subsequent years. This long-term relationship may have more to do with fidelity to a given site, or even a particularly good nesting tree, than to any individual. Male Red-breasted Sapsuckers excavate a new nest cavity every year. Both adults incubate eggs, brood nestlings, and feed young.

Back to top


Low Concern

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are fairly common throughout their range and their populations remained stable or slightly increased between 1968 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.8 million individuals and rates the species a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Red-breasted Sapsuckers were historically shot as orchard pests, but are now protected. Forestry practices that remove snags (standing dead trees) may decrease Red-breasted Sapsucker abundance in some areas.

Back to top


Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Back to top

Learn more at Birds of the World