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Types Of Sapsuckers In North America

North America is home to an incredible variety of bird species, and each species has its own unique characteristics and behaviors. Among these are a sub section of the woodpecker family called sapsuckers. Sapsuckers are a group of woodpeckers set apart for their specialized feeding habits. Let’s explore the sapsuckers in North America and learn about what makes them special. 

What Are Sapsuckers?

Sapsuckers are a group of woodpeckers known for their unique feeding behavior, which involves drilling small holes in trees to feed on the sap, and insects that are attracted to the sap. The tongue of a sapsucker is specialized for extracting sap from trees. It has a brush-like tip with bristles that help to soak up the sap, and it also has a long, narrow shape that allows it to reach deep into the sap wells. Additionally, the tongue has a unique structure that enables it to move in and out rapidly, allowing the bird to quickly lap up the sap as it flows.

Sapsuckers will sometimes visit backyards, but don’t typically come to bird feeders. You’re most likely to see them if you have large, sap producing trees. Look for their “calling card”, rows of small holes across the trunk of a tree.

There are 4 distinctive species of sapsuckers found in North America, each one belonging to the genus Sphyrapicus. These 4 sapsuckers are the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Red-Naped Sapsucker, Red-Breasted Sapsucker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker. Let’s take a look at each one. 

1. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Image: Yellow-bellied sapsucker (visible sapwells on the tree) Jessica Bolser | USFWS |

Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus varius

We begin our exploration with the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers spend the breeding season in mature forests across Canada and the northeastern United States. Then most migrate to the southeastern U.S., Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for the winter. Some individuals may remain in their breeding range year-round if they have access to sufficient food sources. Interestingly, they are the only woodpeckers in the eastern part of North America that are completely migratory. 

These sapsuckers boast striking black and white plumage with a red stripe on the forehead. Males also have a red throat, while females do not. Named for the yellow hue on their underparts, this can vary from noticeably yellow to very pale.

These sapsuckers favor young deciduous forests, where they create sap wells on tree trunks. While they primarily feed on sap, they also consume insects attracted to the sweet liquid. They make two types of holes, round holes that go deep into the tree, and rectangular holes that are not as deep and much be constantly maintained to get the sap flowing. 

2. Red-Naped Sapsucker

red naped sapsuckers
Red-naped Sapsuckers (males) | image by NPS / Tim Rains via Flickr

Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus nuchalis

Red-naped Sapsuckers look very similar to their yellow-bellied cousins, but are found in the western United States. They spend summers breeding along the rocky mountains up into Canada, then move south into the southwest and Mexico for the winter. Some do remain in Nevada, Utah and surrounding areas all year if they have the resources.

They have the same black and white plumage, yellowish underparts, and red forehead as the yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The main difference is that males, in addition to having a red throat, also have a red patch at the nape of the neck. Females may or may not have this red nape-patch. Females also have white at the top of the throat with a red stripe at the bottom of the throat.

These sapsuckers feed on sap and insects, and they create orderly rows of sap wells on trees, such as birches, aspens and willows. During the breeding season, however, they will add fruits and berries in their diet. 

Their activities help out other bird species. Several hummingbird species like the calliope and rufous, will sneak in to enjoy the sap from their sapwells. Nesting holes from the previous year make a great home for other cavity nesting species like the mountain bluebird and chickadees.

3. Red-Breasted Sapsucker

red breasted sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsucker | image by Jake Bonello – USFWS via Flickr

Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus ruber

Red-Breasted Sapsuckers are found along the west coast, from the base of Alaska all the way down to California. The move from more mountainous areas in the summer to coastal areas in the winter, and are most commonly found in pine forests mixed with alder and aspen.

Their body plumage is again similar to most sapsuckers – black and white with yellow hues on the belly. But this species definitely stands out for it’s completely red head and breast. Both adult males and females share this same plumage.

Red-Breasted Sapsuckers are not only skilled at creating sap wells, but tend to eat a lot of insects. They don’t spend as much time drilling into trees as many other woodpecker species. Rather, they meticulously inspect crevices in bark and near their sapwells to pluck insects off the tree. They also fly out to catch bugs in the air. 

The three sapsuckers we’ve talked about so far, (red-breasted, yellow-bellied and red-naped) were all considered the same species until the early 1980’s. Now it is believed they all had a common ancestor, and over time they each developed their unique characteristics that made them distinct from one another due to being separated in different habitats.

4. Williamson’s Sapsucker

williamson's sapsucker
Williamson’s Sapsucker (male) | photo by Yellowstone National Park via Flickr

Scientific Name: Sphyrapicus thyroideus

Found in the mountainous landscapes of western North America, the Williamson’s Sapsucker is mainly found in higher elevations full of birch, spruce, pine, fir and aspen trees.

Adult males are mostly solid black with a white wing-patch, yellow belly, and red stripe down the throat. Females look quite different, with a soft brown head and a back covered in black and white barring (looks similar to the back of a red-bellied woodpecker if you are familiar with them.)

Williamson’s Sapsucker is named after Robert Stockton Williamson, who was an engineer and army colonel. Despite being named after him, Robert Williamson was not the one who discovered the bird. In fact, it was described by John Newberry, a naturalist who was part of the expedition that Robert Williamson was leading. In 1855, while Williamson was in the Army, he and his party were surveying land in Oregon when John Newberry identified the bird as a new species. He then named the sapsucker after his boss. 

Williamson’s sapsucker drill rings of shallow holes around tree trunks, not only to get sap but they also eat phloem, which is the “bark tissue” that conducts sap. They stick primarily to conifers and don’t tend to drill wells in deciduous trees.

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