Red-naped Sapsucker

On the wild side—August, 2013

by Tina Mitchell

A striking-looking, medium-sized, black-and-white woodpecker with splashes of red, the RNSARed-naped Sapsucker shows a black back with lighter mottling on the back and belly.  Spotting a strikingly red throat is not enough alone to clinch the identity, since a male Williamson’s Sapsucker (sometimes found in our area too) also has a red throat.  But if you spot red on the top and the back (or nape) of the head, you’ve got yourself a Red-naped Sapsucker.  A female Red-naped looks quite similar to a male, although her throat may be less red and sometimes her chin (the area just below the beak) is white.  Sometimes.  These sapsuckers strongly resemble the eastern Yellow-bellied Sapsucker except for subtle differences in the face patterns.  But their ranges have very little overlap, so no need to worry too much about differentiating the 2 species unless you’re in the eastern plains of Colorado.  In fact,  Red-naped Sapsuckers and the even more western Red-breasted Sapsucker were both treated subspecies of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker species until 1983, when they were separated based on their (sometimes very subtle) differences in appearance, limited hybridization, and genetic dissimilarities.

Relatively common in the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin regions, Red-napeds most often frequent older aspen stands that have disease and heart rot, which allows easy excavation of nesting cavities.  They forage in aspen, willows, and cottonwoods close to their nest sites but breed almost exclusively in mature aspen stands.  The eastern foothills of Colorado represent the eastern boundary for Red-napeds.  In fact, Colorado ranks 4th for the largest population of Red-naped Sapsuckers in North America (7.4%), coming in behind British Columbia (with a whopping 47.5%!), Montana (9.5%), and Idaho (9.1%).  They leave our state after breeding to winter in Mexico, Baja California, and southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico.

As do all sapsuckers, these birds drill elaborate systems of shallow holes (known as sap wells) in younger, thin-barked trees and feed on the sap that accumulates in them. (No worries—these sap wells don’t weaken a healthy tree.)  They also eat a bit of animal matter, primarily ants, beetles, spiders, and a few other insects.  Other species use their sap wells too:  Hummingbirds, insects, and other wildlife flock to the sugary sap.

Returning to Colorado between mid-March and early May, the male’s distinctive drumming announces the beginning of breeding season:  a series of single taps that begin steadily then slow to an irregular halting tapping.  The female lays 4 – 5 eggs, which are incubated by both parents.  On average, the young hatch in about 10 days.  The noisy chatter of young sapsuckers in a nest makes locating a cavity with these youngsters unusually easy.  The nestlings leave the nest after 26 – 30 days, with the entire brood sometimes fledging over a period of 2 – 3 days.  The adults continue to feed both the fledged kids and those more reluctant to leave the nest.  The family typically remains together for at least a week after fledging in the near vicinity of the nest.

The Red-naped Sapsucker’s genus name (Sphyripicus) literally means “hammer woodpecker”—from Greek (sphura) for “hammer” and Latin (picus) for “woodpecker.”  The species name of nuchalis derives from modern Latin (nuchal) for “nape of the neck.”  As noted above, the common name of “sapsucker” refers to their feeding habit of “drinking” (not really sucking—more like vigorously licking) the sap.  And “red-naped” highlights the small red area at the back of the head.

Nearly all of the literature refers to Red-naped Sapsuckers as “aspen-obligates,” meaning they pretty much require aspens for successful nesting.  Yet this year, Jill and Mark Gully hosted a pair raising a family in an old apple tree near their house—with nary an aspen in the area!  However, their property had willows and cottonwoods, for good sap-well drilling, and lots of water for abundant insect populations.  Apparently the Coaldale Red-napeds don’t read the literature—and we’re all the richer for it!

You can hear the Red-naped Sapsucker’s mewing call and drumming and learn a bit more about this species here .


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