The Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) and the Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) were considered different forms of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) until 1983 when they were split into separate species. They are called sapsuckers because they create sap wells in the bark of woody plants and feed on that sap.

The bird shown above arrived at my house at the end of October, a new species for my yard list! Click on photos for full sized images.

The Red-breasted Sapsucker calls the West Coast home, ranging from southern Alaska south to Baja California. Range map courtesy of NatureServe.

They will hybridize with the Red-naped Sapsucker, especially in the south where their ranges overlap.

I spotted this sapsucker at Lema Ranch last February. If you look closely, you will spot a sap well at the very top of the photo, right above the bird’s beak.

I assumed that this bird was feeding on something, either arthropods or sap, but as other birds landed in the oak tree, it would stop what it was doing to chase the other birds off to the point of making sure they left and didn’t return.

When I began to research this phenomenon, I discovered that sapsuckers create elaborate systems of sap wells and maintain this resource throughout the day to ensure sap production. Because of this large investment in maintenance, sapsuckers defend wells from other sapsuckers, as well as from other species1.

I also found out that other species make use of sapsucker wells to supplement their food intake with sap or with insects attracted to the sap. Rufous Hummingbirds, for example, appear to be closely associated, ecologically, with both Red-breasted and Red-naped sapsuckers; they place their nests near sap wells, follow sapsuckers in their daily movements, and may even time their migration to coincide with that of sapsuckers so they can feed off the sap wells1.

Back in the summer of ’09 I wrote a post on a Juvenile Nuttall’s Woodpecker that was foraging in an oak tree and an Anna’s Hummingbird that was feeding out of the sap wells in that tree. You can see the multitude of sap wells in this live oak tree as the hummingbird feeds.

Here’s a portrait of a Red-breasted Sapsucker taken at Lema Ranch in January of 2010.

References: 1Birds Of North America Online

Written by Larry
Larry Jordan was introduced to birding after moving to northern California where he was overwhelmed by the local wildlife, forcing him to buy his first field guide just to be able to identify all the species visiting his yard. Building birdhouses and putting up feeders brought the avian fauna even closer and he was hooked. Larry wanted to share his passion for birds and conservation and hatched The Birder's Report in September of 2007. His recent focus is on bringing the Western Burrowing Owl back to life in California where he also monitors several bluebird trails. He is a BirdLife Species Champion and contributes to several other conservation efforts, being the webmaster for Wintu Audubon Society and the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Urban Bird Foundation. He is now co-founder of a movement to create a new revenue stream for our National Wildlife Refuges with a Wildlife Conservation Pass.