Possible Red-naped X Red-Breasted Sapsucker Hybird: An Identification Dilemma

by Bryce W. Robinson

Possible RNSA x RBSA

Identifying true hybrids can be mind bending. Attempting to work out the ID can, however, provide a great opportunity to strengthen your knowledge and understanding of distributions and distinguishing characteristics between the species involved.

The bird pictured was reported a few days ago along the Boise River in south west Idaho as a Red-naped Sapsucker, possibly a hybrid with the Red-breasted Sapsucker. This morning, my friends Jay, Heidi, Mitch, and I went in search of the bird to get some photos and see what we thought of its plumage. 

Three Sapsucker species comprise the varius group, including Red-naped (nuchalis),  Red-breasted (ruber and daggetti), and Yellow-bellied (varius), which were all once considered conspecific. Now, each bird is recognized as a distinct species, yet at the confluence of each range, there is regular hybridization. The result is a confusing number of sapsuckers, waiting for the aware and inquisitive birder to work out their identification. 

The Red-breasted Sapsucker breeds on the west side of the Cascade range, continuing north into British Columbia. The area that RBSA and RNSA distributions meet is rather extensive in range, and provides the opportunity for extensive hybridization. It is then very possible for hybridization to occur in British Columbia, with birds migrating into the great basin and ending up in winter in places like Boise. Possible, plausible, but only conjecture.

Possible RNSA x RBSA

This bird shows mostly the distinctive features of Red-naped Sapsucker. 

Here is my breakdown of the bird:

1. The back pattern is typical of RNSA, having two distinctive columns of white descending down the back.

2. The lack of red in the breast, and the dark black breast patch is typical of RNSA.

3. The facial pattern and nape are where this bird strays from the typical RNSA, and why I am considering this a possible hybrid. Note the extensive red in the cheek of the bird. It continues from the throat, breaking the white cheek line, and continuing through the white superciliary. To my knowledge, this is not typical for RNSA.

4. Lastly, the black bar on the back of the nape is broken by red. Again, to my knowledge, this is not typical of RNSA.

Possible RNSA x RBSA

So, is this a RNSA X RBSA hybrid? Could it be a backcross? Well, I think so, but can’t be sure. It is different, and peaks my curiosity. I’ll certainly be studying the subject more, and looking twice at all sapsuckers I come upon from here forward.

Here is a list of resources I used for this post. I welcome any comments and discussion on this bird.

1. Sapsucker Hybrids by S. Shunk. Birding May/June 2005

2. Hybridization Between Red-breasted (Sphyrapicus rubber) and Red-naped (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) Sapsuckers by J. Garrett 

3. The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America. 2000