Sphyrapicus ruberred-breasted sapsucker

Geographic Range

Red-breasted sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) are native to the Nearctic region and found spanning most of the western Pacific coast of North America. They commonly found in the northern-most areas of British Columbia south to the northern-most portion of Baja California in Mexico. The breeding season finds these birds most common along the western portions of British Columbia and into Oregon and Washington, with breeding grounds also found in northeastern California. During the winter, red-breasted sapsuckers migrate to warmer areas along the North American Pacific coast particularly along the southwestern coast of California and into Mexico. (Joy, 2000; Kaufman, 2010; Walters and Miller, 2002)


Red-breasted sapsuckers are abundant in coastal forests comprised mainly of dead trees or large snags that serve as nesting sites. These woodpeckers prefer coniferous forests and can normally be found in highly disturbed forests. Red-breasted sapsuckers have been observed nesting in utility poles, indicating that they may expand outside of primarily forested areas. (Helm, 2007; Joy, 2000; Mahon, et al., 2008; Seneviratne, et al., 2012; Walters and Miller, 2002)

Physical Description

Red-breasted sapsuckers are approximately 20 to 22 cm in length and weigh 39 to 68 g. These birds have a very bright, red, head with a black spot in front of the eye. A white line is present on the space between the nostril and eye, also called the lore, and the breast is vibrantly red with a white patch located on either wing. The back is mostly black with a variable amount of spotting of yellows and off-white colorations. Red-breasted sapsuckers are easily identifiable by their pale-yellow belly. Juveniles are brown in color do not develop the stark colorations seen in adults until after the first molting of the feathers.

A subspecies, S. r. daggetti, differs from S. ruber in the boldness of red coloring on the head and breast and maintains a deep-yellow colored body. More white is present on the wings and the rump of S. r. daggetti as compared to S. ruber. Red-breasted sapsuckers are sexually monochromatic. However, a slight variation between males and female tail patterns has been observed in S. r. daggetti, in which females have more variable tail markings than do males. (Seneviratne, et al., 2012; Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    39 to 68 g
    1.37 to 2.40 oz
  • Range length
    20 to 22 cm
    7.87 to 8.66 in
  • Average wingspan
    131 mm
    5.16 in


Male and female red-breasted sapsuckers form a socially monogamous relationship during the breeding season. Information is limited on aspects of their breeding, but is extensive on the closely related species, red-naped sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus nuchalis). Red-naped sapsucker males perch on a nearby branch and repeatedly sound a squeal call to attract the female. Upon copulation, both birds defend a range of 46 to 137 m around the nest and are extremely territorial. (Walters and Miller, 2002)

Red-breasted sapsuckers have been observed laying eggs from the end of April through the end of July. Only one brood is produced each breeding season, however, it has been speculated that if the first brood fails, red-breasted sapsuckers may brood a second time, a behavior documented in red-naped sapsuckers. Cavities are excavated by both male and female red-breasted sapsuckers and are done in multiple snags and dead trees. One of these sites is then chosen to use as a nesting site. Nests are constructed only in dead trees or dead portions of live trees. Cavity sites may be reused from previous breeding seasons, but the same cavity is not used more than once in any one breeding season. Female red-breasted sapsuckers line the nest with woodchips and will lay on average 4 to 7 eggs each brooding period. Fruit and sap are also a means of nourishment for the hatchlings. Fourteen days after hatching the nestlings are fully feathered and their eyes are completely open. The young sapsuckers are then capable of limited flight and are very close in weight to the adults. (Joy, 2000; Kaufman, 2010; Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Red-breasted sapsuckers breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season is from April through July.
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 7
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    14 days
  • Average fledging age
    14 days
  • Range time to independence
    23 to 28 days

Red-breasted sapsuckers show a great amount of parental care throughout the development of their young. Males and females will both incubate the eggs interchangeably and do not venture far from the nests. Upon hatching, the young sapsuckers are extremely vulnerable to predation and are cared for by the parents to ensure survival. The young hatchlings are fed up until they are ready to leave the nest, approximately fourteen days after birth. The nestlings are fed every seven minutes during the first six days after hatching. From then on, periods of feeding occur every two minutes. The adults feed the hatchlings a variety of food but mostly bring spiders, caterpillars, or flies back to the nest. However, it is common for the parents to remain with the young sapsuckers even after they have left the nest. Observations of the adult sapsuckers teaching the young to fly to higher altitudes and learn the characteristic sap sucking behavior have been documented. (Joy, 2000; Kaufman, 2010; Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


The average lifespan of red-breasted sapsuckers is estimated to be two to three years, however, little information has been gathered on the longevity of this species. (Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    2 to 3 years


The behavioral characteristics of red-breasted sapsuckers have not been extensively documented, but they have been observed in the closely related species, red-naped sapsuckers. Because of the high similarity in these two species, it is thought that behavioral mannerisms are similar. Red-naped sapsuckers move between trees by hopping both horizontally and vertically from limb to limb but are also capable of flight as a means to maneuver through forested areas. Preening behavior of red-naped sapsuckers is common and these birds use their bill to dig deep within the breast, tail, and wing feathers to maintain hygiene. During the mid-day hours, red-naped sapsuckers often sunbathe. Territorial behavior is common during breeding season, especially intraspecific competition between males. It not uncommon for males to engage in physical combat when one has entered the conspecific’s territory. A common fighting tactic between male red-naped sapsuckers is to latch on to the rival’s beak and continue to hold on until one or both males fall off the tree limb to the ground.

Although very territorial, helping behavior has been observed both between members of red-breasted sapsuckers and also between members of red-breasted sapsuckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Red-breasted sapsucker individuals without hatchlings have been documented feeding hatchlings of a neighboring nest and also feeding hatchlings of yellow-bellied sapsucker hybrids. Extra-pair paternity between these closely related species has not been observed, but may explain the occurrence of helping behavior. (Trombino, 2000; Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Range territory size
    46 to 137 m^2

Home Range

Red-breasted sapsuckers have an average territory size of 46 to 137 meters from their nest. The home range of these birds increases in open areas but decreases in smaller, denser forests. (Walters and Miller, 2002)

Communication and Perception

Both visual and vocal communication are used by members of red-bellied sapsuckers, but are less documented than those observed in red-naped sapsuckers. Because the coloration of feathers between these two species is so similar, the behaviors are thought to be nearly identical. Visual cues by red-naped sapsuckers include the puffing of feathers, outspreading of wings, and pointing of the beak in aggressive encounters between same-sex members of red-naped sapsuckers. Also, behaviors such as headswinging may occur in addition to the puffing of crest and throat feathers. All or only a few of these behaviors may be used in an aggressive encounter. Throat fluffing has often been observed between potential mates or when the female and male pair is exchanging positions within the nest cavity to continue incubating the eggs. These physical displays are most common among male red-breasted sapsuckers and are interchangeably used when defending territory or attracting females.

Three vocalizations have been documented extensively in red-naped sapsuckers: the scream, squeal, and waa call. The scream call is used mainly when the adult bird is in distress. The squeal call is used by both males and females but more commonly observed in males when an adversary approaches. It may also be used by males to attract females during the breeding season. Lastly, the waa call is used primarily by fledglings when disturbed or when the fledgling is first learning to fly. (Walters and Miller, 2002)

Food Habits

Red-breasted sapsuckers are characteristically named for their primary method of feeding. They drill holes, or sap wells, in a variety of trees and wait for the sap to accumulate and drip out of the well. Sapsuckers are also known to eat berries, fruits, and arthropods such as spiders, caterpillars, or mayflies. The insects are captured either by attraction to the sap and consumed through the sap sucking behavior, or are actively sought out using gleaning techniques. (Kaufman, 2010; Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit
  • sap or other plant fluids


There are multiple predators that prey upon red-breasted sapsuckers. Eggs are commonly preyed upon by deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) while nestlings are at risk to predation by black bear (Ursus americanus) and gopher snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus). Specific cases have been documented of black bears attacking the parent red-breasted sapsucker perched just outside of the nest in order to access the eggs or hatchlings inside. Other predators of adult red-breasted sapsuckers include Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) and northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis). Red-breasted sapsuckers have been known to swoop down and attack predators present in their territory or around their nest. (Walters and Miller, 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

Red-breasted sapsuckers are primary excavators, meaning they build their own nests by excavating dead trees to create cavities. Secondary excavators may utilize abandoned sapsucker cavities as a nesting site, therefore making red-breasted sapsuckers important contributors to the development of other bird species. Also, red-breasted sapsuckers and their young are a means of prey for forest community predators, thus serving as a food source for of other predatory species in Pacific coastal forests. (Joy, 2000)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Insects are a large part of the red-breasted sapsucker’s diet and they may aid in controlling certain pest insect populations. (Kaufman, 2010; Walters and Miller, 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Red-breasted sapsuckers have been observed nesting in electrical utility poles and by doing so they can cause extensive damage. Also, because red-breasted sapsuckers commonly feed on fruits, they may be considered pests to local orchards or vineyards where fruits and berries are present. (Helm, 2007)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Red-breasted sapsuckers are considered protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act as of November 2013. These birds are labeled as “least concern” under the IUCN Red List and have no special status on the US Federal List, CITES, or the State of Michigan List. ("MBTA List of Migratory Birds", 2013)


Mandy Stoffer (author), Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne, Mark Jordan (editor), Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


uses sight to communicate


2013. "MBTA List of Migratory Birds" (On-line). Accessed April 04, 2015 at http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/regulationspolicies/mbta/MBTANDX.HTML.

Helm, S. 2007. Red-breasted sapsuckers nest in utility pole. Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Volume 119, Issue 1: 133-134.

Joy, J. 2000. Characteristics of nest cavities and nest trees of the red-breasted sapsucker in coastal montane forests. Journal of Field Ornithology, Volume 71, Issue 3: 525-530.

Kaufman, K. 2010. "Red-breasted sapsucker, Sphyrapicus ruber" (On-line). Audubon: Guide to North American Birds. Accessed March 13, 2015 at http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/red-breasted-sapsucker.

Mahon, C., J. Steventon, K. Martin. 2008. Cavity and bark nesting bird response to partial cutting in northern conifer forests. Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 256, Issue 12: 2145-2153.

Seneviratne, S., D. Toews, A. Brelsford, D. Irwin. 2012. Concordance of genetic and phenotypic characters across a sapsucker hybrid zone. Journal of Avian Biology, Volume 43, Issue 2: 119-130.

Trombino, C. 2000. Helping behavior within sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus spp.). Wilson Bulletin, Volume 112, Issue 2: 273-275.

Walters, E., E. Miller. 2002. Red­ breasted sapsucker red­ naped sapsucker. The Birds of North America, 663: 1-32. Accessed March 08, 2015 at http://www.ericlwalters.org/rnsarbsaBNA.pdf.