We’re lucky today in the northeastern corner of California to get a little rain. We live on the edge of the Great Basin high desert and the last few evenings have been wet ones. The air now has a fresh smell. Lilli lives on the far end of town. Sometimes we take our dogs hiking together. This morning Lilli was blessed with a tap, tap, tap at her bedroom window. She opened her curtain and to her amazement, her morning wake-up call was a Red-Breasted Sapsucker! This was the second morning he came tap, tapping on the windowsill. I was so disappointed not to of seen this regal charmer.

Lilli asked me what I thought the bird was doing? Probably catching some bugs, I responded. With the wet weather swarms of insects emerge to the delight of many of our feathered friends.

Then I remembered we once had a Flicker making holes under the eves at our house in the Bay Area. We had to discourage the bird by blocking off the area with some chicken wire. I told Lilli she’d better check around your windows and make sure the bird isn’t doing any damage. Happily, Lilli reported no damage by her Sapsucker. As the weather warms the sap in the trees will start running and the Sapsucker will not have to venture far to feed.

Because these birds create sap wells in the bark of woody plants and feed on sap the name “sapsucker” has been applied to the woodpecker genus Sphyrapicus.

When sapsuckers first arrive at their breeding grounds in the early  spring, they drill tiny holes in tree bark, usually in neatly spaced rows.  These holes are called wells. The wells are shallow but drilled through the outer bark to underlying phloem or xylem tissues of a tree. In northeastern California we have many conifers like the Modoc cypress that are green all year and many woodpeckers drill to  find  insects. These trees also produce some sap, but in the spring here, the gourmets of trees to drill into are the aspen and the willow. Later the bird returns periodically to feed on the sap that oozes out. As the temperature rises the   sap in the trees will flow, trapping bits of cambium and other tree tissues, as well as insects which the birds enjoy. If you live closer to the northwest coast you will often see Red-Breasted Sapsucker in hemlock or spruce trees. We see them jaunt out to catch insects in the air, and they will eat berries and fruits. Besides drilling sap wells, like in a more typical woodpecker fashion they will glean insects from tree trunks, and if your are very, very lucky even from your bedroom window.

Birds are so intelligent and observant! This bird in particular helps provide food and nesting places for other species. Other birds notice and make use of sapsucker wells to supplement their food intake with sap or with insects attracted to the sap. Hummingbirds, for example, appear to be closely associated with Red-Breasted Sapsuckers. It is documented in northern California that both the Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds will take advantage of these sap wells. The hummingbird locates their nests close by a food source because of the frequent feedings of their young. Baby hummingbirds need to be fed about every 20 minutes, plus the mother hummingbird needs to replenish her own energy to keep up this demanding pace. Hummers will follow sapsuckers in their daily movements to discover where these sap wells are.  In addition, other birds like the Mountain Bluebird will grab up an excavated nest cavity of the Sapsucker to provide a perfect nesting site for themselves to use. Sapsuckers, in general, are very important birds to have in our habitat, contributing in force to the web of life.

The adult Red-Breasted Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker with a bright red head, nape, throat, and breast. They have white barred upper body, with a blush of yellow on it’s belly, and white rump. There is also a white stripe running up the side with more white on the female than the male. The wings are checkered, black and white with large white patches. It has a black bill, gray legs and feet.  They are closely related to the Red-Nape Sapsucker and  Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and they may even cross-breed sometimes.

Conservation status: These birds are still fairly numerous but populations have declined somewhat because of loss of habitat from cutting the tree forests in the northwest.

Nesting: A pair of red-breasted sapsuckers usually excavates a new nest cavity each year, leaving the old ones for other species of birds or mammals. They lay 5-6 white eggs. Incubation is by both sexes (with male incubating at night and part of day), 11-15 days. Both parents feed young, bringing them insects, sap, and fruit. Young leave the nest 23-28 days after hatching. One brood per year.

The parents teach the young fledglings the sapsucking habit by feeding them for about 10 days after they leave the nest. Last summer on retreat at Olympia, Washington State Park I saw these birds teaching their youngsters this technique. The fledglings were shy and stayed more in the shadowy thicket, too dark for me to get a good photo. I still watched them with smiles for hours each afternoon while I was there.