Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers are named for their distinctively patterned backs, which feature black and white barred markings that resemble the rungs of a ladder.
Males have a bright red cap that extends from above the eyes to the back of the head, with white and black speckling to the forehead. The face is buff-white with black markings next to the eye and across the cheek. The flanks and upper breast are heavily spotted with black dots, and the underparts are unmarked and an off-white color.
The ladder-backed woodpecker’s bill is horn-colored, with buff nasal tufts above it. Legs are pale greenish-gray, and eyes are a deep reddish-brown.
Females have identical back and wing markings to males, with extensive black and white barring, and the same black speckling on the flanks and breast. The key difference between the sexes is that females lack any red coloring, and their crown is solid black instead of the vibrant crimson of males.
Juvenile birds are similar to females in coloring, although have a duller wash to their plumage, with a brownish tinge to the white markings. In young males, some red-edged feathering on the forehead may be barely visible.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Male
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Female
Classed as one of the smallest woodpecker species, the ladder-backed woodpecker is roughly the same size as a bluebird. There is no difference in size between males and females.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker feeding
Relatively quiet and inconspicuous birds, ladder-backed woodpeckers can be heard making a short, high-pitched ‘pik’ call and a whinnying call that descends in pitch. Drumming is only really heard between February and April when they are heard hammering against trunks and branches at a rate of around 30 taps per second.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker perched on a tree trunk
A ladder-backed woodpecker’s diet is primarily insect-based, with beetles, leafworms, ants, and larvae, which it mainly gleans from leaves, but also forages on the ground and occasionally extracts from tree trunks by drilling. Cactus fruits are also sometimes eaten.
Ladder-backed woodpecker nestlings are almost exclusively fed on a diet of larvae, delivered by both parents to the nest cavity until they fledge.
Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker feeding on a cactus plant
Arid climates, with desert scrubland, thorny vegetation, and mesquite grasslands offer ladder-backed woodpeckers an ideal habitat in which to thrive. The species is present from sea level to elevations of up to 2600 m (8500 ft). Landscapes with wooded canyons and pine-oak forests are also favored, particularly those with rivers or streams.
The distribution range of ladder-backed woodpeckers is confined to an area in the south of the United States, spreading from southern California to the west as far east as central Texas. To the north, small populations are found in desert areas in the southeastern corner of Colorado and in northwestern Arizona and southeastern Nevada.
To the south, ladder-backed woodpeckers are found throughout Mexico, and in parts of Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, with Nicaragua forming the southern limit of its range.
Around 1.2 million ladder-backed woodpeckers are estimated to live in the United States, with southeastern Arizona and southern and south-central Texas home to the highest concentrations.
The global population of ladder-backed woodpeckers is estimated at 5.9 million mature individuals, and within much of their large distribution range they are relatively widespread and common. Because of their habitat requirements of arid landscapes and reliance on desert vegetation, sightings further north and east are scarce and highly unusual.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker in natural habitat
Confined to the extreme southwestern corner of the US, ladder-backed woodpeckers are only resident in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado, as well as in small areas of Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado.
Desert landscapes and thorny forests are preferred. In southern California areas with agave or Joshua trees offer the best chances of a sighting, while in Arizona ladder-backed woodpeckers are most commonly spotted in regions with mesquite, acacia, hackberry, and walkingstick cactus.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers are not found in Canada, and no records exist of regular or vagrant visitors. If you see a small black-and-white woodpecker in Canada, it’s highly unlikely to be a ladder-backed, and closer inspection is recommended for a more accurate identification.
Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker sitting on a branch
Little is known about the average lifespan of ladder-backed woodpeckers, although banding records indicate that the oldest known individual survived to 4 years and 6 months. Anecdotal accounts of observations of the same female ladder-backed woodpecker over a 7-and-a-half-year period also exist. Breeding occurs for the first time at one year of age.
Bull and gopher snakes are likely raiders of ladder-backed woodpeckers’ nest cavities, and hawks and falcons are among the predators of young and mature birds.
The Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918 offers protection to ladder-backed woodpeckers, their young, nest sites, and eggs. Under this legislation, it is a federal offense to kill, injure, trade, or trap a ladder-backed woodpecker or to interfere with its nest site.
Currently, there are no threats to the future survival of ladder-backed woodpeckers and they are rated as a species of least concern globally. Habitats they thrive in are usually not overly populated or potentially useful for agriculture, which limits the presence of humans and has allowed the species to thrive with relatively few external interruptions.
Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker searching for insects
A cavity-nesting species, the ladder-backed woodpecker excavates its own nest chambers in larger trees, such as Joshua, willow, cottonwood, walnut and oak. Walkingstick cactus, Mojave and chaparral yucca, and giant agave stalks may also be used, with typical nest heights between 0.6 m to 9 m (2 ft and 30 ft) above ground level.
A cavity with an opening of 3 cm to 4 cm (1.3 in to 1.6 in) is drilled out by the male, with feathers used as a lining but no additional nesting material added.
Eggs are usually laid between April and June, with late March and early July clutches recorded on rare occasions. Incubation is shared between the male and female, and although precise information about the duration is unknown, eggs are thought to hatch after between 13 and 14 days. One sole brood is raised each year.
Between four and six creamy white eggs are laid by the female ladder-backed woodpecker, although some clutches may contain as few as 2 or as many as 7 eggs. The eggs, which have no markings or speckling, measure 2 cm by 1.5 cm (0.8 in by 0.6 in).
Ladder-backed woodpecker pairs form in late winter or early spring, and pairs remain together for the duration of the breeding season. Longer-term bonds have been recorded, with pairs raising young together in successive years.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker at nest cavity
Confrontations are observed between rival males, as well as between ladder-backed woodpeckers and Nuttall’s woodpeckers. Aggressive behavior takes the form of bill pointing, head bobbing and swinging, and wing flicking. They may also undertake a brief ‘moth-like’ flight, hovering over their opponent as a form of intimidation.
Roosting cavities are used by ladder-backed woodpeckers, each occupied overnight by a single bird. Former nests may be used or new cavities drilled out.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker feeding on insects
Ladder-backed woodpeckers are a non-migratory species and are resident in the same territories all year round.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers live in the southwestern United States all year round but are not found elsewhere in the country outside of this region. The species is also widespread throughout the arid landscapes of Mexico and populations are scattered across the northernmost parts of Central America.
Ladder-backed Woodpecker perching on the side of a bird bath
In the northern parts of their range, ladder-backed woodpeckers may be attracted to backyard suet feeders when insects are not as widely available. Mealworms and sunflower seeds are also readily taken.
As their diet is highly dependent on insects, a suitable environment with plenty of beetles, ants, and their larvae will attract woodpeckers, as well as trees and succulent plants for foraging and nesting.
The most common trees ladder-backed woodpeckers choose to build nesting cavities in include Joshua Tree, willow, cottonwood, oak, walnut, hackberry, and pine. Chaparral and Mojave yucca and agave are also popular.
Generally, cavities drilled into trees by ladder-backed woodpeckers do not cause extensive damage to trees or tree trunks, and healthy trees can withstand these with no lasting impact. As woodpeckers play a significant part in controlling insect populations, the benefits of their presence usually outweigh any negatives.
In winter, ladder-backed woodpeckers may visit backyard feeders to forage for mealworms, black oil sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter. Such sightings are more common in the north of the range where winter conditions may have more of an impact on insect populations.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers and Nuttall’s woodpeckers are very alike in appearance, however, some key features help distinguish between the two species.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers have a lot less black on their head and upper back. The red crown of a ladder-backed woodpecker begins at the forehead, and extends to the back of the head, while in Nuttall’s woodpeckers, the red cap is further back.
The barred markings on a ladder-backed woodpecker’s back continue up to its neck, while in Nuttall’s woodpeckers, the striped patterning ends on the upper back.
16cm to 18cm
21g to 48g
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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