IUCN threat status:

Least Concern (LC)

Comprehensive Description

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Comprehensive Description

Sphyrapicus ruber, the Red-breasted sapsucker, is a species in the Picidae family (Kaufmann 2017). The Red-breasted sapsucker gets its name from its foraging strategy, which consists of drilling neat horizontal rows of holes into tree trunks and then returning to those holes later to feed on the running sap and the insects attracted to it. Unlike most woodpeckers, S.ruber forages in healthy trees and can actually kill a tree if it drills too many sap-holes around its trunk (Seattle Audubon 2016). However, other species can also make use of the holes made by S.ruber to supplement their food intake with sap or with insects attracted to the sap (Walters, Miller, & Lowther 2014).

Red-breasted sapsuckers are similar in appearance to the closely related Red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), but S.ruber has a red head and breast, in accordance with its name. The upper part of its torso is black with slight white bars, they have yellowish bellies and there is a prominent white stripe across each black wing, a feature which distinguishes them from other woodpeckers. Males and females look similar, but the female has less red and whiter coloration. Juveniles are mottled brown but have white wing-stripes like the adults (Seattle Audubon 2016). There are two varieties of red-breasted sapsucker, one which lives further to the North, in areas ranging from Oregon to Alaska, which is significantly redder than its Southern counterpart, which resides in California and has red-tipped feathers on its head.

S.ruber typically inhabits dense conifer forests, which is its preferred breeding ground. This species can often be found in mature and old-growth forests, but will breed in second growth as long as large nesting trees are present. They also frequent riparian habitats that often include large cottonwoods (Kaufmann 2017). S.ruber are common breeders in suitable habitats west of, and just beyond, the Cascade crest, to the outer coast. They are rare in conifer forests east of the Cascades and may occasionally breed in residential areas or city parks west of the mountains. Wintering birds can be found in lowland areas west of the Cascades, and they are extremely rare winter visitors across the mountains to the east.

S.ruber form monogamous pairs and both members of the pair excavate the nest cavity. Their nests are usually built 15-18 meters above ground in deciduous trees such as aspen, alder, cottonwood, or willow, but they may also be found in firs or other conifers (Seattle Audubon 2016; Kaufmann 2017). They typically lay 4 to 7 small, white eggs and both sexes usually incubate the eggs for 12 to 13 days. Both male and female birds also typically feed insects to their young. After about 25 to 29 days, the young leave the nest, although they are still dependent on the parents for ten days or so thereafter. S. ruber typically raise a single brood each year (Seattle Audubon 2016).

The main food of S. ruber is tree sap, but they also eat some fruit and insects, especially during the nesting season, which they find by foraging and fly catching. Their call is a harsh, mewing “waah.”  They can also be identified by their distinctive drumming, which is a loud, irregular, slow tapping (All About Birds 2017).


Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0)

© Authors: Caylah Lunning and Luke Christensen; Editor: Dr. Gordon Miller; Seattle University EVST 2100 - Natural History: Theory and Practice, Spring 2017.

Supplier: seattleu_natural_history


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