Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Possible Sapsucker Hybrid?

As a fairly dedicated “patch” birder (read more about that here), I don’t travel specifically to look for birds, though I will take advantage of errands and longer trips to bird whenever I can. During the winter, especially, I enjoy just seeing what shows up at the feeders.

I was delighted when Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers stopped at our suet feeder in October 2006 and again in 2007, most likely migrating birds. None came by in 2008, but in January 2009, a male Sapsucker came and stayed for the winter. You can read about its interesting behavior here (no photos from that long-ago era). A couple of juveniles stopped by briefly in October 2009 and in January 2010, the same male that had been our guest the previous year returned and took up residence. You can read about its encounter with a localmockingbird.

The same Sapsucker has returned each January since then, staying for a few months until the weather warms and the sap runs again. (D and I have noticed that the Sapsucker doesn’t show up in the yard until the weather gets really cold, say below 20°F. That makes sense, of course, given its preferred diet of sap and sap-attracted insects.)

How do I know it’s the same bird? Well, photos are telling, of course, and I have many, dating back to 2012. But birders, especially patch birders and back-yard birders, are able to identify individual birds; we are close observers of plumage and behavior. In the case of this Sapsucker, it has followed the same route into our yard every day that I have seen it over the years: from the neighbor’s yard to the west, stopping in the dead elm (where an old bittersweet vine provides fruit snacks) before winging into the suet. And its behavior on the suet is the same from day to day and year to year.

Anyway – the point of all that is to establish that I know this particular bird very well. Now to the interesting part.

A few weeks ago a female Sapsucker came through the yard briefly. I got a good look at her interacting with “my” male before she flew off. I had hoped they might be a pair and would both visit the feeders, but apparently she was competition rather than complement, and he drove her off. Seeing her impelled me to review my field guides, though, as my experience with Sapsuckers in the field is fairly limited, and it’s always good to review and refresh one’s knowledge.

Well, I came away from the field guides with an entirely unexpected idea: that the male Sapsucker I’d been watching since 2009 might not be a “pure” Yellow-bellied, but might have some genetic material from, or be an actual hybrid with, a Red-naped Sapsucker, a western bird. Exciting!

I did a little research and learned that the two do interbreed, and that hybrids are known. I also learned that differences in juvenile plumage and molting patterns between the two species vary and can confound positive identification. Well, in the case of “my” bird, since I’ve seen it during the same time of year (January-February) for seven years, I know it's not a juvenile.

Here’s what makes me think that “my” bird derives from both Red-naped Sapsucker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker:

Characteristics of Red-naped Sapsucker:
·      Red smudge on nape, below the black border of the red cap (though this is less red than would show on a a pure R-N, a Y-B should have no red here at all)
·      Incomplete black border on the red throat (this black border would be unbroken in Y-B)

Characteristics of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker:
·      Spangles and extensive spotting on the back (most Y-Bs would have extensive white spangles; my bird has the spangling pattern of a Y-B, though they are gold* rather than white) (R-N would have more solid black areas on the back, I think)
·       Vocalizations typical of Y-B (soft mewing sounds, not harsh like R-N)

* Some might call it brown, but I call it golden.

At the end of this post, I’ve provided lots more photos and several video clips from the past several years. I’ve included photos of the bird in various positions, which should illustrate clearly the pattern of plumage around the head and neck.

I’d be interested to know what experienced birders would to say about this interesting bird. Feel free to leave a comment. (Anonymous comments are OK; all comments are held for review before they are posted.)

Regardless of this bird’s genetic history, he is beautiful and endlessly interesting, and I enjoy his visits every winter. Given the known lifespan of small birds like Sapsuckers, though, perhaps this will be his last winter in my yard. All the more reason to enjoy him.


Shunk, Stephen A. Sphyrapicus Anxiety: Identifying Hybrid Sapsuckers. Birding, 37:3, May/June 2005, 288-298.

Here’s a photo of another bird that looks like the one I’ve described: http://birdseye.photo/photo/33804/


Photos taken in Farmington, CT and displayed chronologically from November 2012 through February 2015. All but one of the photos are digi-binned with Iphone through window; not great quality, but sufficient to show plumage. The first four photos have been color-enhanced for artistic purposes only; all others are unaltered. Videos have been stabilized.

November 2012:

January 2013:

February 2013:

December 2013:

January 2014:

February 2014:

January 2015:

February 2015:

All images and video © Quodlibet All Rights Reserved.

More posts about birds and birding in Quodlibet may be found here:

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