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Red-naped Sapsucker Life History


ForestsThe 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.Back to top


InsectsRed-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. Back to top


Nest Placement

CavitySapsuckers 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-7 eggs
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:White.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and helpless.
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Bark ForagerRed-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. Back to top


Low Concern

Red-naped Sapsuckers are common throughout their range and populations have been stable between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million and rates them 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. These birds were historically shot as an orchard pest but are protected now. Forestry practices may affect abundance in particular areas.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

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.

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