We spent one afternoon watching several Red-breasted Sapsuckers as they quietly worked the cottonwood trees at Lake Piru, California. They seemed to have one favorite tree evidenced by the number of sap holes present. The only other time we have seen this woodpecker was just recently. We found one helping itself to some grapes left over in a vineyard.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker is a woodpecker. It is very close in looks and behavior to the Red-Napped Sapsucker and the Yellow-bellied sapsucker. It has a red head, with the red going to the throat and down to the chest. Its black upperparts are barred with white, and it has a large white patch on its wings. It has a pale yellow belly and its rump is white. Some individuals show black and white on the face. The birds in the south are whiter and have a white mustache stripe. The juvenile is brown with black and white spots on the wings and tail. There is a white patch on the wings. The head show little or no red.
Range and Habitat
These woodpeckers are found in the thin Pacific coast of North America. Their range goes from southern Alaska to the Sierra Nevada of California, and east to western Nevada. They prefer coniferous and deciduous forests like Aspens and Ponderosa Pines. They are partial migrants and move south in the winter especially if the tree sap freezes.
Red-breasted Sapsuckers work around a tree, using their bills to dig horizontal holes in the tree. They eat the sap and the insects that collect in the holes. Besides licking up sap, they also eat ants, weevils, spiders, larvae, and mites; they sometimes catch insects in flight. Seeds and plant berries are popular food, especially pepper tree berries, elderberries, dogwood, and sometimes poison oak berries. They are quiet woodpeckers, with calls that sound like “mew” or “kwirr”. The males drum in their territory in a broken rhythm which is unique only to them, five taps, slowing, and then occasional double taps.
Breeding and Nesting
Red-breasted Sapsuckers are monogamous but will interbreed with other sapsuckers, like the Red-Naped Sapsucker and the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Together, both adults excavate their nest cavity in a tree which is well off the ground. No other material is added to the nest, but chips of wood usually remain from the excavation. The 4-7 eggs are incubated for two weeks by both parents and both parents also feed the young after they hatch. The chicks remain with their parents for 25-29 days while they learn how to extract sap from the trees. The parents usually only have one brood a year.