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Red-naped Sapsucker


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.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
7.5–8.3 in
19–21 cm
1.1–2.3 oz
32–66 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Downy Woodpecker, smaller than a Northern Flicker.
Other Names
  • Pic à nuque rouge (French)
  • Chupasavia nuquirroja (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • If you think 3 of the 4 species of sapsucker look remarkably similar, you’re not imagining it. The Red-naped Sapsucker is closely related to Yellow-bellied and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. All 3 were considered the same species and called Yellow-bellied Sapsucker until 1983 when researchers found that they were distinct species. The red-naped hybridizes where it comes in contact with the other two species, and birds intermediate in plumage are sometimes found.
  • Sapsuckers, despite what their name implies, do not suck sap, but are specialized for sipping it. Their tongues are shorter than those of other woodpeckers, and do not extend as far out. They lap sap up with the tip of the tongue, which has small hairlike projections that help hold the sap, much like a paintbrush holds paint.
  • Sugary sap is a hot commodity and some species, such as the Rufous, Calliope, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, follow Red-naped Sapsuckers around, stealing a sweet drink when they can. These hummingbirds can also get an easy meal by picking out insects stuck in the sap.
  • Red-naped Sapsucker nest holes make good homes for other species. Many species that nest in holes don't have a specialized bill needed to carve out their own home, including Mountain Bluebirds, nuthatches, and chickadees. The small holes excavated by sapsuckers provide safe places for smaller hole-nesting birds to nest.
  • Sapsuckers drill hundreds of tiny holes in trees. Surprisingly, most trees survive this quite easily, in the same way that maple trees survive humans tapping them for maple syrup.
  • The oldest recorded Red-naped Sapsucker was at least 4 years, 11 months old when she was found in Wyoming in 2011, the same state where she had been banded in 2008.



The Red-naped Sapsucker breeds in deciduous and evergreen forests with a mix of willow, aspen, birch, ponderosa pine, juniper, or Douglas-fir trees, from around 1,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sometimes they also breed in gardens, yards, and high-elevation forest edges. 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.



Red-naped Sapsuckers eat tree sap, fruit, and insects. When willow, birch, alder, and chokecherry trees leaf out they drill small rectangular holes into the phloem or inner bark of the tree to access the sap. The birds don't actually suck the sap as their name implies; instead the sap sticks to the stiff hairs on their specialized tongue, allowing them to lap it up. In early spring before the sap of the more sugary trees starts flowing they drill parallel rows of circular holes into the xylem or sapwood of juniper, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, white spruce, aspen, and black cottonwood. They also eat ants, spiders, beetles, and flies that they pick off foliage, catch in midair, or that get caught in the sap.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1.1 in
2–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
8–12 days
Nestling Period
23–32 days
Egg Description
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless.
Nest Description

Males do most of the excavating to create a nesting cavity in live or dead trees, but females help on occasion. Males chip away the interior of the cavity, creating a cushion of wood chips for the eggs instead of adding material to line the inside of the cavity. It can take anywhere from 6 days to 4 weeks to excavate a cavity. Nest holes are about 1.5 inches wide and 1.5 inches tall. The inside of the hole is around 4.5 inches wide.

Nest Placement


Sapsuckers nest in holes in live or dead trees. They excavate holes most frequently in quaking aspens, but also use western larch, lodegpole pine, Douglas-fir, paper birch, black cottonwood, and ponderosa pine. They typically choose trees bigger than 11 inches in diameter that have heartwood fungus, which makes excavation easier. Sapsuckers often excavate a new hole in the same tree in subsequent years, and they may reuse the exact same nesting hole or a pre-existing cavity. Nest holes can be anywhere from 2–75 feet above the ground.


Bark Forager

Red-naped Sapsuckers behave like other woodpeckers, hitching up and down trees with their strong feet and using their stiff tail feathers for support. They also fly in an undulating pattern, alternating between flaps and glides. But unlike other woodpeckers, they drill circular and rectangular holes in trees to access tree sap that they lap up with the stiff hairs on their tongue. Both males and females spend most of their time at their sap wells defending them from other sapsuckers and other species. To keep out unwelcome visitors, they thrust their heads towards the intruder, flick 1 or 2 wings up, raise their crest, fluff their throat feathers, or give chase. In early spring, sapsuckers chase prospective mates around trees, loudly calling as they go. Courting birds face each other with bills raised, throat feathers fluffed out, and crest feathers raised while swinging their bills side to side. Males, and sometimes females, indicate their readiness for mating by squealing. If a female is receptive she responds by dropping her wings, lifting her tail, and throwing her head back. They form monogamous pairs for the duration of the breeding season and sometimes they stay with the same mate in successive seasons, although it may be that the nesting tree is more of a draw to return than their actual mate.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Red-naped Sapsuckers are common throughout their range. Populations are stable and increased slightly between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million, with 51% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 49% breeding in Canada, and 59% wintering in Mexico. Red-naped Sapscuker is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. These birds were historically shot as an orchard pest, but are protected now. Forestry practices may affect abundance in particular areas.


Range Map Help

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


Short-distant migrant. Red-naped Sapsuckers start departing for wintering grounds in the Southwest and farther south into Mexico in late August. They start heading north again in late March or early April.

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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