Sapsucker ID Challenge: The Answer and More

While the varius complex sapsuckers (Red-breasted, Red-naped, and Yellow-bellied) continue to vex some observers, it is clear that the respondents to this photo quiz were on the right track. The hints provided by Greg Gillson likely put folks on the path to correctly identifying this bird. As he suggested, determining the sex was a key element.

I took these pictures at “Calliope Crossing” along Indian Ford Creek north of Sisters, Oregon on 7 June 2009. Location alone (not shared in the quiz) tells us that this bird is likely a Red-naped Sapsucker, which along with Red-breasted Sapsucker are the expected species in the central Oregon Cascades. Although this locale is near the epicenter of the hybrid zone of Red-naped and Red-breasted sapsuckers, this bird shows no evidence of being a hybrid. There is no bleeding of red feathering into the auriculars and the red on the underparts is entirely constrained to the throat.

As is often the case when one is focused on photography, I failed to look at this bird closely in the field. Upon returning home and downloading my images from the weekend, I was momentarily taken aback by the apparent lack of red on the nape of this bird. “Did I somehow overlook a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker?” flashed through my brain. However, I quickly realized that aside from the absence of red on the nape, this bird looked like a typical adult female Red-naped Sapsucker.


This close-up shows the closed throat frame--created by the black malar stripe connecting to the black breast shield--which borders a mostly red throat and white chin. This combination of features is typical of female Red-naped Sapsuckers. Female Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have an all-white throat and chin and only rarely show a small amount of red in the throat.

                                                                                                                                                                                  How do we know that this is an adult female? We can safely presume that this bird is an adult because it is carrying food to nestlings in image #1 (see enlargement below). As for sexing the bird, if you look closely at the chin (area immediately below the bill) of this bird, it is white (shown well in images #1 and #2). In both Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers, male birds have an entirely red chin and throat area. Although on rare occasions adult female Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers show limited red on the throat  (Mlodinow et al. 2006), they typically show an all-white throat. Conversely, adult female Red-naped Sapsuckers have a mostly red throat and limited white that is mostly restricted to the chin. The throat and chin pattern of this bird is just right for an adult female Red-naped.


In addition to providing another perspective on the closed throat frame, this image shows the narrow white supercilium and the black dominant face pattern of this Red-naped Sapsucker. Also note the orangish area in the white feathering on the nape (also visible in the image above). This is a remnant of the red nuchal patch that has likely disappeared due to feather wear. Red-naped Sapsucker molt after the breeding season and before fall migration, so this bird is near the end of its plumage cycle, when feathers are most worn.

Further examination of these images reveals other aspects of the plumage that support this identification. One of the things I look at in comparing Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers is the balance of black and white in the face pattern (see “Don’t Be Suckered by Sapsuckers in this journal 23 December 2008). I find that the faces of Red-naped Sapsuckers look more black than white, while the light areas are more dominant in the faces of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The white supercilium (line above and behind the eye) is noticeably thinner in Red-naped than it is in Yellow-bellied. Similarly, the white moustachial stripe, which starts above the bill and forms the border below the black auriculars (cheek patch) is also a bit thinner in Red-naped.  The black auriculars usually look more extensive on Red-naped as a result. Mlodinow et al. (2006) also noted this difference, but cautioned that viewing angle must be taken into account when evaluating this feature.  To my eye, this bird has a facial pattern that is black dominant.


This enlargement of the head shows the mostly black head and face pattern from a slightly different angle. It also offers a better view of the remnant orangish feathering on the nape.

Back pattern and coloration, though highly variable, also offer clues to the identity of these sapsuckers. As a rule, Red-naped Sapsuckers show less white or light colored barring than Yellow-bellieds on their otherwise black backs. Typically, a narrow trough of unbarred black separates two broader troughs of white barring. On Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the horizontal barring usually extends across the entire back with no unbarred black trough down the middle. None of the three images presented here show the back pattern well, but the amount of unbarred black on the sides of the back and wing coverts are suggestive of Red-naped. Also, note that the barring on this bird is white. On Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the horizontal back barring is most often buffy or somewhat golden and not clean white.


This image shows the clean white barring on the back and the large lateral margin of unbarred black on the side of the back. In all plumages, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers show more extensive barring extending all the way across the back and the barring is typically buffy or slightly golden in color.

Some might still be asking about the two features on this bird. First, where is the red nuchal patch for which Red-naped Sapsucker is named? Second, the throat frame—the black that borders the throat—appears complete with no break at the corners of the throat. One of the limitations of standard fields guides is that there is insufficient space to show the full range of variations in these species and in other cases the illustrations are incorrect. In listing the characteristics of these two species Shunk (2005) notes that both sexes of Red-naped Sapsucker may “show limited or no red on the nape.” In all three images of the quiz bird (particularly #2) there appear to be a few orange/red-tipped feathers in the white area on the nape, but they are not obvious at first glance. Sadly, none of the popular field guides illustrate this variation and only Sibley (2000) offers text suggesting that the red on the nape may be absent. All specimens of Red-naped Sapsuckers taken 1 Oct-1 May had red on the nape (Mlodinow et al. 2006), hence they concluded that feather wear late in the plumage cycle (during the breeding season) accounts for birds lacking red nuchal patches.

Field guides have also created two other misconceptions. I pulled an assortment of field guides off my shelf and found these issues. Until fairly recently one of the major field marks often used in separating Yellow-bellied and Red-naped sapsuckers was the throat frame. All books correctly depict a closed throat frame—the black malar connects to the black breast shield—in both male and female Yellow-bellieds. Male Red-naped Sapsuckers show a break in the throat frame at the corners because the black malar stripe does not wrap around the throat and connect with the black breast shield. Thus, this is a useful field mark when dealing with adult males. Surprisingly, Peterson’s 3rd addition Western Guide (1990) shows a male Red-naped with a close throat frame, something I’ve never seen.

Equally misleading is the illustration of the adult female Red-naped Sapsucker that appears in the 4th edition National Geographic Guide (and all preceding editions). It depicts an open throat frame. Shunk (2005) and Sibley (2000) correctly point out and illustrate that female Red-napeds have a closed black throat frame, which is the case with our quiz bird. During their research, Mlodinow, Barry, and Cox found that 100% of the female Red-naped museum specimens they looked at had closed throat frames (Mlodinow pers. comm.). Note that there may be a bit of white mottling (shown in image #1) at the corners of the black throat frame.

The second issue with some field guides is their depiction of the nape pattern on Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Both the 3rd edition Peterson Western Guide (1990) and the 4th edition National Geographic Guide incorrectly show adult Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers with their lateral black crown stripes (above the supercilium bordering the red crown) connecting across the hind crown and then extending solidly down the middle of the  nape and hind neck. In both Yellow-bellied and Red-naped sapsuckers the white supericilia wrap around and connect across the nape just below the black hind crown. This creates a break in the black on back of the head and neck, which are not solidly black as depicted in the Peterson and National Geographic field guides. In adult Red-naped there will be varying amounts red tipped feathering where the white connects across the nape. Mlodinow et al. offer a dorsal comparison of several specimens (Fig. 5) that shows the nape pattern of these two species.

The purpose of this exercise was to illustrate and discuss the variability that can and usually does occur within a given species. While field guides are generally helpful, they are not comprehensive. There is no replacement for time in the field studying individual birds and learning the subtle variations a species may exhibit. Taking pictures of the birds you see and studying them after the fact can also be helpful. However, I support the notion that it is best to observe and identify a bird before trying to photograph it, as opposed to shooting pictures first and asking questions later.  

Literature Cited:

Mlodinow, Steven G., Jessie H. Barry, Cameron D. Cox. 2006. “Variation in Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.” Birding 38:6 pp. 42-51.

National Geographic Society. 2002. Field Guide to the Birds of North America 4th edition. National Geographic Society. Washington D.C.

Peterson, Roger Tory. 1990. A Field Guide to Western Birds. Houghton Mifflin Co. New York, N.Y.

Shunk, Stephen A. 2005. “Sphyrapicus Anxiety: Identifying Hybrid Sapsuckers.” Birding 37:3 pp. 288-298.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Chanticleer Press Inc. New York, N.Y.


I see almost too much white on the back of this bird, for it to be a pure Red-naped Sapsucker female with a worn nape (or even a nape with little red, as suggested by the presence of several white feathers). Rather, I suspect that this bird has some Yellow-bellied Sapsucker genes in it, like those I see here in western Alberta. Come to think of it, why couldn’t it be one of our birds? Thanks for posting this. Cheers,


Hey, kliler job on that one you guys!

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