Living Bird Magazine
Living Bird Magazine
Ladder-backed WoodpeckerDryobates scalaris
- ORDER: Piciformes
- FAMILY: Picidae
When traveling through the scattered cactus and mesquite of the arid southwestern U.S., it’s difficult to believe that these almost treeless habitats are home to woodpeckers. But the Ladder-backed (once known as the “Cactus Woodpecker”) is an attractive dweller of deserts, desert scrub, and thorn forests. It can also be found in pinyon pine and pinyon-juniper forest. Like many small dwellers of arid habitats, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers can be inconspicuous and quiet, requiring a bit of time and patience to find. Their small size and agility make them deft foragers among the thorns and spines of plants like cholla, mesquite, and prickly pear.More ID Info
Find This Bird
To find a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, plan an early morning outing, ideally between late January and March when pairs establish their bonds and defend territories. The birds are most vocal then, and their antic behaviors can be delightful to watch. Look for them in clusters of cholla, Joshua trees, juniper, willow, or honey mesquite. Listen carefully for their peek call, descending rattle, or quick drumming, as these birds can be easily overlooked in the quiet of a hot desert day.
- Pico Mexicano (Spanish)
- Pic arlequin (French)
Ladder-backed Woodpeckers may come for mealworms offered at feeding stations; they have also been observed eating peanut butter and black oil sunflower seeds. In the northern parts of the range, suet feeders sometimes attract them. To attract a nesting pair, try growing native vegetation and leave dead trees standing when possible; this species does not typically use nest boxes.
- Cool Facts
- Over a period of almost 8 years, a female Ladder-backed Woodpecker was seen in Riley County, Kansas, some 300 miles from the nearest part of their normal range. Many birds—even nonmigratory ones like the Ladder-backed, wander a bit out of range, but this wanderer was exceptional.
- Most woodpeckers have their four toes arranged in an X-pattern, with two set forward, the other two backward (technically known as "zygodactyl"). This adaptation allows them to cling to vertical surfaces more easily or firmly than the passerines (perching birds), which have three toes set forward and one backward.
- Ladder-backed Woodpecker was first described to science in 1829 by Johann Georg Wagler, a young German herpetologist working in Munich who described the species from specimens brought back to Europe. Wagler’s name is commemorated in the scientific names of three species of snake and six birds: a parakeet, a toucanet, an oriole, a woodcreeper, a guan, and an oropendola.
- Ladder-backed Woodpeckers occasionally hybridize with their closest living relative, Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Where the two species co-occur, they respond vigorously to audio recordings of the other species when played in their territories during the nesting period, suggesting they regard each other as rivals.
- The oldest known Ladder-backed Woodpecker was a male and at least 4 years, 6 months old when he was caught and released in Texas. He had been banded in the same state.