The Pacific coast representative of the yellow-bellied sapsucker complex, the red-breasted sapsucker differs from other sapsuckers in its almost entirely red head and breast. Identification is complicated by frequent hybridization with the red-naped from British Columbia south to eastern California, as well as by more limited hybridization with the yellow-bellied in British Columbia. Polytypic. Length 8".
The head and breast are almost entirely red, and the black breast patch is lacking. The back shows 2 rows of whitish or yellow-buff spots or bars, but this patterning is very limited in northern birds. Adult: red head and breast, pale yellow belly, back black with geographically variable yellow-buff to white barring on the sides of the back and lower back; white rump and white patch on wing coverts resemble other sapsuckers. The sexes are similar, but females (at least in southern populations) tend to show more pale markings on the rectrices. Many birds, especially when worn, show a ghost of underlying black in the auriculars and chest and black-and-white patterning in the malar region; the red of worn birds may appear paler and more orange-red. Juvenile: brown head and extensive brown mottling below; darker than both the juvenile red-naped and yellow-bellied, with less facial patterning. Adultlike plumage attained by September, though underparts are duller and mottled with brown.
Two subspecies. Nominate ruber breeds from southern Oregon northward; daggetti occupies the remainder of the range. Nominate birds show deeper and more extensive red on the breast, which is more sharply delineated from the pale belly; more limited white spotting on the flight feathers; a deeper yellow wash on the belly; and a more extensively black back with limited yellowish buff cross bars.
Compare with the red-naped sapsucker; extensive hybridization renders many individuals with intermediate head patterns unidentifiable.
Status and Distribution
Common. Breeding: moist coniferous forests, mixed oak-conifer riparian woodlands in coastal mountain ranges, usually in lower and wetter habitats than Williamson’s. Subspecies daggetti is largely limited to montane habitats from about 4,000 to 8,000 feet. The red-breasted woodpecker hybridizes frequently with the red-naped in the Cascades and eastern Sierra Nevada. Winter: northernmost populations (e.g., in southeastern Alaska, British Columbia) withdraw southward (though resident on Queen Charlotte Island), and higher-elevation breeders generally withdraw to lower elevations. Winters widely around deciduous trees, orchards, and parks in lowlands adjacent to breeding range from southwestern British Columbia to southern California, and south to northwestern Baja California. Northern nominate birds have been found as far south as San Diego, California, and southern Arizona. Vagrant: casual east to Arizona, New Mexico, central Texas, Sonora, and northwest to Kodiak Island, Alaska.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006