You’re up in the mountains of Colorado in a Douglas fir forest on the look out for the Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) when all of a sudden a woodpecker flashes past you and lands on a nearby tree. Your first glimpse is of a barred back and you immediately say to yourself “Northern Flicker” and start to turn away. But wait, you could still have a Williamson’s on your hands.
Did you know that the male and female Williamson’s Sapsucker look so remarkably different that 19th century scientists thought they were 2 different species for almost a decade? Let’s look closer.
The male Williamson’s Sapsucker is distinctive and probably not likely to cause many identification problems. It has a glossy black back and chest with a red chin, prominent white wing patch, barred flanks, and a yellow belly; truly a striking bird. The female, by contrast, is mostly black, white, and grey.
Like the Northern Flicker, the female Williamson’s Sapsucker does have a barred back and a black “collar”, but the Flicker’s back is more brownish and it has spotting on the breast and belly instead of more barring. It is more colorful overall with red or yellow wing and tail linings, a red or black mustache (male), and, in the Eastern
subspecies, a red nape patch. The female Williamson’s Sapsucker’s single point of color, meanwhile, is a yellow belly, which is often not visible due to its typical posture climbing the trunks of trees where it drills wells from which it eats sap and the insects that get stuck in it. While the Flicker also climbs trees, it spends a great deal of time eating ants off the ground, catching them with its sticky tongue. It is also a bigger bird at 11 to 12 inches versus 8 to almost 10 inches for the Sapsucker.
The sounds the two birds make is also different. Rather than the “wicka wicka” and “clear” calls of the Northern Flicker, the Williamson’s Sapsucker makes a “churring” sound. They appear to be less vocal than the Flicker, however, so you may not even hear them call at all.
So, the next time you spot a fairly large woodpecker with a barred back here in the Colorado mountains, take a second look instead of dismissing it as another Northern Flicker.