Illustration of ladder-backed woodpecker

Illustration by Donald L. Malick


Map: Ladder-backed woodpecker range

This common desert woodpecker replaces the closely related Nuttall’s in arid regions; the 2 species are known to hybridize at a few localities in southern California. Polytypic (about 8 ssp. in North and Middle America; birds north of Mexico are cactophilus). Length 7" (18 cm).

Identification The barred black-and-white back pattern of the ladder-backed woodpecker extends up to the hindneck, with very little solid black on the upper back. The underparts are tinged creamy or buffy, with spots on the sides, thin bars on the flanks, and sparse, short streaks across the breast. The outer tail feathers are barred with black. There is as much white as black in the face pattern, with the lower auriculars being white. The sexes are similar, but the male ladder-backed woodpecker has extensive red on the crown, which is lacking in the females.

Similar Species See the closely similar Nuttall’s woodpecker. The Gila also has barred back pattern and is often common in the same habitats, but the Gila is larger than the ladder-backed, has a plain gray-brown head and breast (with small red cap in males) and very different calls; shows white wing patches and a white rump.

Voice Call: a fairly high, sharp pik; it suggests the downy but is louder, sharper, and slightly lower in pitch. The ladder-backed also gives a slightly descending jee jee jee series and a louder, slower kweek kweek kweek. Drum: a simple roll like that of Nuttall’s, but longer, averaging 1.5 seconds.

Status and Distribution Common; extensive range south of United States to Nicaragua, El Salvador. Year-round: Dry desert woodlands with yuccas, agaves, cactuses; piñon-juniper foothills; mesquite woodlands; and riparian corridors. Often common in southwestern towns. Overlaps (and sometimes hybridizes) with the Nuttall’s very locally on the western edge of the California deserts from Inyo and Kern Counties south to northwestern Baja California. Vagrant: casual east to vicinity of Houston, Texas, and on the Pacific coast near San Diego, California.

Population Generally stable, though declines have been noted in Texas.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

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