Williamson’s Sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsucker is a silken black Woodpecker that is found in the conifer forests of western North America. These birds look absolutely marvelous with the male birds of the species having a cherry red patch on their throat and a glistening yellow underbelly.

About Williamson’s Sapsuckers

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are fascinating given that, unlike other birds, the male and the female are drastically different when it comes to appearance. The males with their silky black color, red throat patch, and yellow belly look completely different than the females with their horizontal white stripes and a black breast patch.

These birds get their name from their habit of licking sap off the coniferous trees. Being Woodpeckers, Williamson’s Sapsuckers peck on pine trees and leave. And then they return to lick the flowing sap from the pecked area on the bark and also eat flies and insects that got caught in the sticky sap.

Williamson’s Sapsucker was named after Robert Stockton Williamson, a no non-sense topographical engineer in the U.S. army. Williamson’s party was surveying near Klamath Lake, Oregon in 1855 when the naturalist of the expedition saw this strikingly beautiful bird and named the bird after his boss, Williamson.

Doesn’t this beautiful bird with such marvelous colors sound interesting? Let’s learn a little more about them!

● Williamson’s Sapsucker Photos, color pattern, song
● Williamson’s Sapsucker Size, eating behavior, habitat
● Williamson’s Sapsucker Range and migration, nesting


Williamson’s Sapsucker Color Pattern

The color patterns for Williamson’s Sapsuckers are very different when it comes to different sexes. The adult male bird has a very black and velvety back. Their wings have two vertical stripes of white and the underbelly is bright yellow. The face is sharp with a stripe of white near the bit and eyes. They have a very distinct and unique cherry red patch on the throat.

The female birds are very different. The whole black body is covered with horizontal white stripes overall. They have a black patch in the breast area and a yellow upper belly. Their tails are striped and white like their bodies.

The bills are black and the legs are ash brown for both sexes. The juvenile birds are paler versions of the adults.

Description and Identification

The stark differences between the two sexes are pretty helpful in identifying these birds. The adult male is silky black with a red throat while the adult female is striped with white and has a black breast patch. The juvenile male is paler in color than the adult male and lacks a red throat. Similarly, the juvenile female is the exact same as the adult female but paler and does not have the black breast patch.

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are a part of the family Picidae. The adult birds cannot be mistaken for the birds of other similar species like the Red-naped Sapsucker, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Red-breasted Sapsucker because of the unique colors and patterns, the juveniles can be easily mixed up with the juveniles of other species. Being Woodpeckers, you can find these birds pecking on coniferous trees, drilling small, shallow holes or sap wells, drinking sap from the inner bark, and eating insects trapped in the sticky sap.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Song

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are not songbirds, so they don’t really sing rhythmic notes. The calls that these birds give out include a high nasal “chyaah” that sounds like a raptor which is the most heard sound these birds make. Pairs are heard giving a staccato call and a rattling trill during the breeding seasons.

Among the other sounds, the sound of drumming on the trees is common. Both males and females drum on trees. The males do it more frequently and louder.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Size

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are almost about Robin’s size; significantly bigger than a Downy Woodpecker and smaller than a Northern Flicker. These birds measure around 8.3-9.8 inches (21-25cm) in length and weigh around 44-55 grams (1.6-1.9 oz). These birds are medium-sized Woodpeckers with a compact body, stout medium-sized bill, and fairly long wings.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Behavior

During the breeding season, the male birds start establishing territories even before the females reach the breeding grounds. The males are very territorial at this time of the year and chase away other males from their own species or even other species that enter their territory that is usually 10 acres or more. Sometimes physical combats take place
between rivals.

The courtship basically includes the male making a flight towards the female, perching behind her and swinging his head side to side while giving the staccato call. Males and females share incubation, brooding, and feeding responsibilities. Both the sexes take naps clinging to trees, but the males nap in the cavities with the younger ones sometimes.

The males and females part ways after the children leave the nest and fly away. The pairs may re-mate in subsequent seasons or change mate which makes it evident that Williamson’s Sapsuckers aren’t exactly monogamous. Sometimes the birds that have just finished a breeding cycle display courtship, prospect new nest sites, and excavate a new nest with a different partner but do not actually breed.

During winters, these birds tolerate others from their own species and do not maintain territories. The nights are spent in natural or excavated cavities and the days are for sunbathing.

What do Williamson’s Sapsuckers Eat?

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are insectivores but they feed heavily on the sap from the coniferous trees and Phloem; the moist innermost tissues of the bark that produces sap. To harvest sap, these birds drill small rings of holes or sap wells around the trees. They feed on the sap all year long but feed on it more frequently during the springtime as the sap rises and they are getting ready for breeding and brooding. These birds maintain sap wells in approximately 5-6 trees simultaneously while raising their youngsters and use these trees with wells for many years continuously.

Williamson’s Sapsuckers only drill sap wells in coniferous trees and never the deciduous trees whereas there has been some evidence of these birds stealing sap from sap wells drilled by other species of woodpeckers in the deciduous trees.

Young hatchlings feed heavily on insects, especially ants along with beetles, aphids, and flies. They pick up ants from trees and branches and sometimes from the ground. They hop on branches or trunks catching ants that usually walk in a single line to tend colonies of aphids.

Sometimes Williamson’s Sapsuckers catch insects mid-air while flying. These birds’ insectivore diet mainly includes carpenter ants, wood ants, velvet tree ants, black ants, mountain pine beetle, click beetles, lady beetles, and rove beetles. They also eat ground beetles, long-horned beetles, checkered beetles, scarab beetles, aphids, crane flies, moths (and larvae, such as western spruce budworm) accompanied by occasional spiders and false scorpions.

Like other sapsuckers, these birds too eat the insects, like flies that get trapped in the sticky sap. Sometimes they also expose colonies of insects by flaking, scaling, or drilling the bark meanwhile most of their foraging includes gleaning insects from barks and foliage.

In the winters, when the number of insects relatively declines, Williamson’s Sapsuckers adopt a diet that includes fruits and seeds like madrone, juniper, pinyon pine, and various kinds of wild berries.

Williamson’s Sapsuckers Habitat

Williamson’s Sapsuckers live in the coniferous forests as their main diet includes sap, phloem, and sap trapped insects from the coniferous trees. These birds are thus found in the coniferous or mixed coniferous-deciduous forests in the west of North America, from the Rockies westward.

These birds mostly live in the higher elevations with drier forests consisting of trees like western larch, Douglas-fir, white fir, grand fir, red fir, Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, Jeffrey pine, mountain hemlock, water birch, and trembling aspen. They however tend to nest in forest openings and ridges.

During winters, the females tend to live in lower elevations than the males. Females also tend to live in more diverse habitats.

Williamson’s Sapsuckers avoid living in moist forests with trees like western cedar and western hemlock but during winter migrations, exceptions can be observed.

Range and Migration

The breeding range of these birds includes western North America from northern Mexico to as far north as British Colombia.

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are semi-migratory birds. During the winters, the females migrate to lower elevations. These birds tend to migrate southwards in winters with the females going far southwards than the males. Some birds even migrate to lowlands; eastwards to Louisiana. Even though they are semi migratory in nature some birds, especially the females may migrate as far as west-Central Mexico.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Lifecycle

Williamson’s Sapsuckers have a life span of around 5-7 years. The adult birds pair up during the breeding seasons and excavate a cavity and build a new nest. The female lays 4-6 eggs that are glossy white in color. Both the male and female take turns to incubate the eggs for 10-13 days. The male incubates the eggs during the night and some parts in
the day.

The hatchlings are helpless, naked, and closed-eyed. The pairs also split the duties of feeding the younglings and even carrying away the fecal matter. These chicks are heavily fed with ants. Young leave the nest after 3-4 weeks of hatching. The brood number is only 1 per year for these birds.


Williamson’s Sapsuckers live in the dry coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests. They forage in the denser areas however they nest in more open areas and the ridges. The pairs together find a new site for a nest. They select a live tree to excavate a nest hole. They often choose trees with a fungal infection as the wood gets soften because of it. These birds mostly prefer old and large trees.

Both the male and the female build a nest after the male excavates a hole in the fungus-infected softened area of the tree’s trunk. The hole is about 1.6 inches in diameter whereas the cavity is 3.6 inches across and 10.5 inches deep. They line the cavity with wood chips.

Anatomy of a Williamson’s Sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are about the same size as American Robins. The body is long with a sharp angular head. The legs of these birds are pretty strong and have feet with curled toes and sharp nails for a good grip as these birds grip on tree trunks and almost hang vertically to drill into the barks and peck holes for nests and take naps hanging on
branches. The tail is medium inside and the wings are quite large. The beaks of the birds are long, point, and thin but very stout and strong to facilitate a lot of pecking and drilling in the wood as these birds are a kind of Woodpeckers.

Final Thoughts

Named after a man who didn’t actually spot the bird first, Robert Stockton Williamson, these birds were a source of confusion to ornithologists for a long time as the differences between the males and females of the same species were so stark. Because of the appearances, the males and females were categorized as two entirely different species and the females were named as Black-breasted Sapsuckers because of their black breast patch until the year 1873. In that year ornithologist Henry Henshaw located a pair in their nest near Colorado and published his observations putting an end to the confusion.

Although these birds are in the low concern category, like most birds Williamson’s Sapsuckers are also affected by habitat loss because of global warming and chopping down of coniferous forests for fuel and their conversion to pastures.


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At Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Williamson’s Sapsuckers

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Williamson’s Sapsuckers are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Iron On Patches

Kids, Youth, and Adults love to collect our Bird Watching Academy & Camp iron-on patches. Our bird-watching patches help you keep track of the birds you have seen and identified. You can also display the patches on our Bird Watching Academy & Camp banners.

The Cooper’s Hawk is a great iron-on patch to start your collection with. The patches are durable and can be sewn on or ironed on to just about anything.

Williamson’s Sapsucker Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Williamson’s Sapsucker. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders For Williamson’s Sapsuckers

There are many types of bird feeders. Here are our favorite bird feeders for your backyard. We use all of these bird feeders currently. Kids will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. Using this collection of bird feeders will provide a wide variety and many types of birds.

Best Bird Houses For Williamson’s Sapsuckers

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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