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Red-naped Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus nuchalis ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Red-naped Sapsuckers are industrious woodpeckers with a taste for sugar. They drill neat little rows of holes in aspen, birch, and willow to lap up the sugary sap that flows out. The presence of sap wells is a good indication that they are around, but so are their harsh wailing cries and stuttered drumming. The red patch on the back of their head helps separate these sharply dressed black-and-white sapsuckers from Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the East and Red-breasted Sapsuckers along the western coastal states.

Keys to identification Help

Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Red-naped Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker with a slight peak to the back of the head. It clings vertically to trees giving it an elongated appearance. The bill is stout and sharply pointed.

  • Color Pattern

    Red-naped Sapsuckers are black and white overall with a red cap, nape, and throat. They have a long white bar on the folded wing. A black stripe through the eye is bordered by white stripes. The belly is mottled black and white, with a dingy or yellowish cast. Female Red-naped Sapsuckers have a white patch on the chin while males have entirely red chins. Juveniles have a brown cap and an overall brown wash on their belly and head.

  • Behavior

    Red-naped Sapsuckers climb up and down trees, leaning against their stiff tail feathers for support. They drill rows of parallel circular holes known as sap wells in tree bark to get the tree sap flowing which they lap up with their tongues. Like other sapsuckers, they drum on trees in a slow and irregular pattern.

  • Habitat

    Red-naped Sapsuckers breed in mixed forests of willow, aspen, birch, ponderosa pine, juniper, or Douglas-fir. They tend to avoid oak or pine-oak forests during the breeding season, but use them during migration and winter, along with orchards and woodlands near streams.

Range Map Help

Red-naped Sapsucker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Red-naped Sapsucker

    Adult male
    • White wing patch
    • Black stripe through the eye, bordered by white
    • Red crown, throat, and nape
    • Red throat only partially bordered in black
    • © Lois Manowitz, Tucson, Arizona, November 2009
  • Adult female

    Red-naped Sapsucker

    Adult female
    • White patch on the chin
    • Red crown, throat, and nape
    • White wing patch
    • Black stripe through the eye, bordered by white
    • © Brian J. Smith, Santa Cruz, Arizona, October 2015
  • Juvenile

    Red-naped Sapsucker

    Juvenile
    • Overall brown wash on their belly and head
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, July 2002
  • Adult male

    Red-naped Sapsucker

    Adult male
    • White wing patch
    • Black stripe through the eye, bordered by white
    • Red crown, throat, and nape
    • Red throat only partially bordered in black
    • © Frank Fogarty, June 2013
  • Adult

    Red-naped Sapsucker

    Adult
    • White wing patch
    • Black stripe through the eye, bordered by white
    • Red crown, throat, and nape
    • © Laura Erickson, Colorado, April 2013

Similar Species

Similar Species

All sapsuckers have a vertical white patch on their wings that separates them from other woodpeckers. Among the sapsuckers, range can usually help separate them. Red-breasted Sapsuckers occur in the western coastal states, overlapping with Red-naped Sapsuckers only in British Colombia, Washington, and Oregon, where they sometimes hybridize. Their winter ranges also overlap in southern California and Baja. Adult Red-breasted Sapsuckers have more extensive red on their head and breast than Red-naped Sapsuckers. They also lack the black eye patch seen on Red-naped Sapsuckers. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers occur to the east of Red-naped Sapsuckers, although a small hybrid zone occurs in southwestern Alberta. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a white (not red) nape. Their throat is completely bordered in black as opposed to the partial black border of Red-naped. Male Williamson’s Sapsuckers have an entirely black back and don't have red on the head. Juvenile sapsuckers can be separated based on the the amount of brown on the head. Juvenile Red-breasted Sapsuckers have a browner head and lack the pale eyestripe of juvenile Red-naped. Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a paler brown head with buffier stripes on the face. Juvenile Red-naped Sapsuckers can be confused with female Williamson's Sapsuckers but they have a pale brown head without the eyestripe. Female Williamson's Sapsuckers also have a finely barred back as opposed to the coarse mottling seen on juvenile Red-naped Sapsuckers.

Backyard Tips

A suet feeder can attract sapsuckers. Try putting one up in a shady spot in your yard. Learn more about setting up a suet feeder at Project FeederWatch.

Red-naped Sapsuckers might make your yard their home or they may stop in along their migration route, especially if you have apsen, birch, or pines in your yard. If you are worried about sapsuckers hurting your trees, check out the FAQs on All About Birds.

To make your yard the best it can be for birds, learn about creating bird friendly habitat at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

The key to finding a Red-naped Sapsucker is to look for tiny holes drilled into trees, especially in aspen stands surrounded by willows in the Rocky Mountains. Even if you don't hear them calling or drumming, the neat rows of holes are a good clue the birds are around. Sapsuckers drum in a very distinctive, stuttering pattern, and you can use the tone of the drumming to help find the bird. If the drumming sounds hollow, look for them on a standing dead tree; if it's mores solid sounding, look for them on a live tree. They also use willows and alders, so be on the lookout for a bird awkwardly clinging vertically to tiny willow and alder stems. They tend to be more active early in the morning and early in the breeding season in mid-May, when you can watch them chasing each other around in pre-courtship games.

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