Monday, April 25, 2011

Red-breasted Sapsuckers---drilling and waiting for dinner

Woodpeckers have always been the most interesting species of bird to me. Ever since growing up on a large Oregon family farm in the Willamette Valley I remember the excitement in seeing them in the forest around our lake, or seeing Pileated woodpeckers in our apple orchard. Locally here in the Snoqualmie Valley we are blessed with no fewer than five species of woodpeckers in the surrounding open mixed forests. One which leads a more quiet life happens to be nearly my favorite---the red-breasted sapsucker.
These beautiful birds have red heads and breasts and can be confused for no other species of woodpecker in our region (the red-headed woodpecker is an eastern US species). They also have virtually no noticeable differences in appearance between the male and female (very unlike the common hairy and downy woodpeckers that are common around here). Dense mixed and conifer forests typical of western Washington are a favorite home for them---sounds a lot like our surrounds here indeed! They get their name “sapsucker” from the foraging behavior which they follow. This consists of drilling orderly 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. Very different than most woodpeckers, they forage in healthy trees and it is actually possible to kill a young tree if they drill too many sap-holes around its trunk. This, however, is quite uncommon and shouldn’t be something to worry about. Most if not all western red cedar trees that you see in a healthy forest will have thousands of these holes ringing the trees! You won’t find them dying anytime too soon from it either. Even a small flowering cherry tree in our immediate yard has become a favorite drilling/foraging zone for a resident bird on our property. This tree sap is the main food of red-breasted sapsuckers. They also eat some insects and fruit. They will enjoy more insects during the nesting season and they primarily will feed insects to their young.

These busy birds are very resident neighbors and don’t move around much nor migrate. They are common in the lowlands of Western Washington even in winter. However, if the weather turns cold enough for sap to freeze, they may move out to the outer coast to find food.
Lastly, they are considered a “keystone” species. This is significant because it means that many other species use the sap wells they drill. So the next time you hear a polite hidden “tapping” sound going on and on in a cedar tree nearby take the time to look more closely. You might find one happily showing you that your home is a healthy part of the ecosystem as well!


  1. You shot such a wonderful shot. The Woodpecker is so beautiful. This is also a great post. Thank you.

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