This red-breasted sapsucker was working the trees along Emigrant Lake east of Ashland.

Heed the drumming of the sapsucker

It's a chilly winter day, and I'm standing in the mud, pruners in hand, contemplating the fate of my apple tree one more year. I'm certain my choices for which limbs to leave and which to thin will all be wrong in the eyes of a professional, but the tree continues to thrive and produce apples in spite of my efforts.

As I stand there agonizing over the decisions, a silent bird swoops in and lands on the trunk. It is a striking bird with a bright, carmine-red head and neck, yellowish belly and a big white patch in each wing. The bird is a red-breasted sapsucker. Some confuse it with the red-headed woodpecker from the Eastern United States, but it is only a distant relative.

The red-breasted sapsucker gets little press because it seldom calls, and even when it does, the soft call does not carry far. It keeps to the shadows and generally maintains a low profile. When it wants to advertise, it does so by drumming. While most woodpeckers produce a constant beat while drumming, the drumming of the sapsucker has a distinctive cadence: bbbbbbbbbbbrm, bbbrm, bbbrm.

On this cold day, the bird in my apple tree is silent. It checks the small holes drilled over the years for sap and insects. The pits barely pierce the bark to the cambium beneath. Because most woodpeckers are strictly insect eaters, it has been debated whether sapsuckers drink sap or merely take insects trapped in the sap. Studies have shown that sap is indeed an important part of their diet. Its tongue is even different from other woodpeckers, being shorter and having a divided tip that helps take up sap.

After feeding for just a few minutes, it moves on to other trees it has tapped during its circuit of the neighborhood.

The harm to the tree is slight, and I am pleased to share my yard with this brightly colored bird. I return to my yard work and another bird flies into the tree. This time it is a diminutive ruby-crowned kinglet. There is usually one that regularly visits the yard seeking the remaining aphids in the hellebore or insect eggs in the willow. This time it visits the sap wells of the red-breasted sapsucker. It briefly hovers in front of the wells, drinking sap before cleaning its beak and moving on.

Yellow-rumped warblers, chickadees and others will do the same. Most insectivorous birds will feed on sweets, including fruit and sap when available. The added calories certainly help when insect prey is scarce. My sapsucker feeds not only itself but others, as well.

Not long ago, the red-breasted sapsucker was lumped with two other forms collectively known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. The split produced the yellow-bellied sapsucker found in the eastern United States, the red-naped sapsucker in the Rocky Mountain region and our red-breasted sapsucker in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is most common among Douglas fir but sometimes nests down to the valley floor.

The range of the red-breasted sapsucker just barely overlaps the range of the red-naped sapsucker along the western shore of Upper Klamath Lake. If you happen to be at Rocky Point or Malone Springs, take care. You might find either.

Stewart Janes is a Biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at

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