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Ladder-backed Woodpecker Life History



In the United States, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers occur in thorn forests, deserts, and desert scrub from the lowest elevations up to about 7,600 feet. Desert areas with agave and Joshua tree usually have Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in southeastern California, while in Arizona the species uses deserts with mesquite, paloverde, catclaw, yucca, acacia, spiny hackberry, jumping cholla, and walkingstick cactus. Where they overlap with Nuttall’s Woodpeckers in California, Ladder-backed is less often in riparian areas (occupied more by Nuttall’s) and is confined mostly to xeric (very dry) habitats. Farther east, where there are no Nuttall’s, desert-edge woodlands and riparian areas with cottonwood and willow are also places to look for Ladder-backed. In southeastern Colorado, Ladder-backed is found in juniper and pinyon-juniper woodlands in the lowlands. South of the United States, Ladder-backed occurs also in pine and pine-oak forests up to 8,000 feet or so.

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Ladder-backed Woodpeckers eat mostly insect larvae and some adult insects. Prey include wood-boring beetles, leafworms, ants, caterpillars, and hemipterans, and occasionally they take cactus fruit. They forage for insects by picking, probing, gleaning, flicking, prying, or tapping with the bill, and they can be quite acrobatic, twisting and turning, balancing with the wings open, and hanging upside down in pursuit of food. Unlike larger woodpecker species, they rarely dig deep into the wood, and they do not cache (store) food or capture flying insects in midair. They rarely feed on the ground. In general, males more often forage on trunks and branches, while females forage on smaller plants and bushes.

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Nest Placement


Males do most of the work in excavating nest cavities in larger trees such as Joshua tree, willow, cottonwood, walnut, oak, hackberry, pine, mesquite, and agave. Nests in yucca, agave, and old fence posts have also been found. Cavity height ranges from 2 to 30 feet above the ground.

Nest Description

The few nests to have been measured had circular or oval cavity openings between 1.25 and 1.6 inches in diameter, cavity depth of 7–14 inches, and cavity bottom 3.25 inches across. They don’t build a nest inside the cavity, but the nest area may contain some feathers.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:0.7-0.9 in (1.7-2.3 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.7 in (1.4-1.7 cm)
Egg Description:

White and unmarked.

Condition at Hatching:

Naked and helpless.

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Bark Forager

With their stiff tails and agile feet, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers can prop themselves on just about any plant to feed. They move upward and around trunks or branches with hops and often with contortions of the body. Breeding pairs form or re-form in winter or early spring. Courtship has not been described, but woodpecker specialist Lester Short catalogued numerous behaviors associated with rivalries between males, as well as conflicts with the closely related Nuttall’s Woodpecker. These include pointing with the bill (at the rival, upward, or directly away), bobbing, turning, and swinging the head, flicking and spreading of wings, and a “moth flight” over the opponent, in which the wings are held open or downward for a few seconds in flight, very unlike the normal undulating flight of this species.

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Low Concern

Ladder-backed Woodpecker populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 5.9 million. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List, indicating it is a species of low conservation concern.

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Lowther, Peter E., Peter Pyle and Michael A. Patten. (2017). Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris), version 3.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from

Short, L. L. (1971). Systematics and behavior of some North American woodpeckers, genus Picoides (Aves). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 145:1–118.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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