Red-naped sapsuckers on the move

A red-naped sapsucker works on a tree last week in Santa Fe County near N.M. 14. Courtesy Jimmy Kiy

This striking, 8½-inch long bird from the woodpecker family has a sweet beak. The red-naped sapsucker drills holes in trees, particularly aspen, cottonwood and willow, in search of the sugary syrup found within.

Sapsuckers don’t actually suck sap, as their name implies, but rather lap it up with their specially designed tongues, which are shorter than those of other woodpeckers, and have small hair-like projections that help hold the sap.

It is similar to a paintbrush holding paint. They drill several rows of horizontal circular holes known as sap wells in tree bark to get the sap flowing. These wells allow them to easily drink the sap. Insects that get stuck in the sap are eaten by sapsuckers and other birds. In fact, hummingbirds sometimes follow red-naped sapsuckers around, hoping to steal a sweet drink from the sapsucker’s sap wells or to grab a quick snack by picking out insects stuck in the sap.

Red-naped sapsuckers are found in our area and much of Northern New Mexico during the spring and summer breeding season, but also can be seen now as they move south. During the spring and summer, these sapsuckers settle in to nest in mixed forests of willow, aspen, ponderosa pine, juniper, or Douglas-fir.

One can find them in the southern half of our state during migration and all-winter long in other types of forests, especially wooded areas along streams.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker of the Eastern U.S. and the red-breasted sapsucker of the far West are closely related to our red-naped sapsucker. In fact, until 1983, when researchers found them to be distinct, all three were considered the same species, called a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Watch for migrating red-naped sapsuckers moving through our area right now. The sapsucker pictured was spotted last week in Santa Fe County near N.M. 14/Turquoise Trail. It was observed working away on the same tree for more than an hour.

Some of you may still be seeing a few hummingbirds at your feeder as they make their way south. Reports through October are not unusual. Keep your feeder out with fresh nectar until you haven’t seen a hummingbird for at least two weeks. Late feeding does not keep them from migrating but rather helps the stragglers make the trip.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.

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