Common in arid regions of North America, the ladder-backed woodpecker is the southwestern equivalent of the more widespread downy woodpecker. Small and active, this is an easy woodpecker to spot, but it can be challenging to identify this member of the Picidae bird family because of its similarity to other species and the variability among subspecies. Learning more ladder-backed woodpecker facts can help birders feel more comfortable with each identification as well as better understand what makes this woodpecker so remarkable.
- Scientific Name: Picoides scalaris (occasionally Dryobates scalaris)
- Common Name: Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, Cactus Woodpecker, Texas Woodpecker, Baird's Woodpecker, San Fernando Woodpecker, San Lucas Woodpecker
- Lifespan: 4-5 years
- Size: 7.25 inches
- Weight: .7-1.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 11-12 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Identification
Like all woodpeckers, the ladder-backed woodpecker has a straight, stout bill, and its bill is black. Males have a slightly longer bill than females, but this can be very difficult to differentiate in the field. These birds have an upright posture, and their stiff tail helps balance their stance on tree trunks.
Males have a buff-white face with horizontal black stripes. The forehead and nape are black and may show streaking, and the crown is bright red but may show stippling or spotting toward the front. The throat is buff. The upperparts and wings are barred black and white, and the rump is black. The central tail feathers are black, while the outer tail feathers are white with black bars. The underparts range from buff to whitish and show blurry spots and streaking, particularly on the breast and flanks. The undertail coverts are whitish with gray-black bars.
Females are similar to males but have a black crown without any red coloration, and their face has more white than black. For both genders, the eyes are dark and the legs and feet are gray-black.
Juveniles are similar to adult birds. Both young genders have red streaks in the crown, though less overall red color than mature males will show. As young females mature, they lose that red coloration.
These birds have a single sharp "peek" or "pik" call note, as well as a harsh, warbling rattle call that descends slightly in pitch at the end. Typical drumming is loud and rapid, lasting 1-2 seconds with each burst.
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Habitat and Distribution
These small woodpeckers prefer relatively arid habitats and are found along creek washes and riparian areas in desert regions. They are often seen in areas with only small plants or scrub growth, and they are also common in towns and suburbs.
They are found in southern Nevada and southeastern California, throughout southern Arizona and New Mexico, as well as western Texas. To the south, this bird's range stretches through Mexico as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula. Smaller populations are found in Central America as far south as Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers are year-round residents of their range and do not seasonally migrate.
These woodpeckers are generally solitary or found in pairs, though small family groups may stay together in late summer as juvenile birds mature but before they seek out their own mates and territories in the late winter and early spring. Their flight is an undulating wave path, and when agitated, males will raise their crown feathers into a short crest.
Diet and Feeding
These woodpeckers are largely insectivorous and eat a wide range of insects and larvae. In late summer and fall they will also incorporate fruit and berries into their diet, and in spring they may sip some nectar, particularly if insect populations are low and food is scarcer.
When foraging, females are often higher in the foliage, while males stay lower and may even forage on the ground for ants. These woodpeckers do not generally excavate extensively while foraging, but will glean, pick, tap, or probe to find insects.
These are monogamous birds. As cavity-nesters, they excavate a suitable nest site either in a dead tree or branch or in a large cactus or succulent such as a saguaro or agave. Nest entrances are generally 3-30 feet above the ground, and males do the majority of the excavation though females do assist with the project.
Eggs and Young
The plain white eggs are oval-shaped or elliptical, and there are 2-7 eggs in each brood. Both parents share incubation duties for 12-13 days, and after the altricial chicks hatch, both parents continue to feed the young woodpecker chicks for 20-25 days. Only one brood is raised each year.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers occasionally hybridize with Nuttall's woodpeckers or hairy woodpeckers in areas where the species' ranges overlap. This hybridization can make proper identification difficult because markings become unclear and the young birds will show traits of both species.
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Conservation
These woodpeckers are not considered threatened or endangered. Their population is generally stable, though some Texas populations are slowly declining because of habitat loss. Preserving habitat and minimizing pesticide use can help protect ladder-backed woodpeckers and ensure plenty of resources for thriving populations.
Tips for Backyard Birders
These woodpeckers readily visit yards and gardens that have a reliable water source that attracts their attention, such as a bird bath fountain. They will also visit feeders for suet, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds. Minimizing insecticide can help provide an adequate natural food source for these woodpeckers, and berry bushes can be good winter food options. Allowing native cacti to grow to large sizes may attract nesting ladder-backed woodpeckers. Dead trees should be allowed to stand if safely possible to provide additional nesting sites and foraging opportunities.
How to Find This Bird
While ladder-backed woodpeckers are widespread and are considered common in their range, they can still be challenging to locate. Visiting the appropriate riparian habitats is essential, and birders should carefully check large cacti and dead trees for any nesting cavities or drilled holes that would indicate woodpecker activity. Watching for movement in the mid- and upper levels of trees can help pinpoint where woodpeckers may be busy.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Picidae bird family is a popular one, with more than 250 species of woodpeckers, piculets, wrynecks, flamebacks, and flickers. Birders who want to learn more about close relatives of the ladder-backed woodpecker should check out the gallery of North American woodpecker species, plus visit these extra woodpecker profiles:
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