Living Bird Magazine
Red-naped SapsuckerSphyrapicus nuchalis
- ORDER: Piciformes
- FAMILY: Picidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Carpintero Nuca Roja (Spanish)
- Pic à nuque rouge (French)
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.