Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Picoides scalaris

  • Version: 3.0 — Published March 7, 2017
  • Peter E. Lowther, Peter Pyle, and Michael A. Patten

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Male (left) and female (right) Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

Small black-and-white woodpecker of mesquite and cactus lands of the Southwest. Males distinguishable from females by red crown and nape. Upperparts barred black and white, with underparts dull whitish with spots and streaks.

© Edward Plumer, Texas, United States, 20 February 2016

"We have become so accustomed to associating Woodpeckers with big timber, that it strikes us as uncanny to flush a Cactus Woodpecker from a creosote bush at the edge of the desert, and to have it go plinking contentedly from one bit of dwarf vegetation to another. . . . [H]owever much it may forage over the creosote and cholla patches, on occasion, it requires something of more ample girth for a nesting site." —William L. Dawson, The Birds of California (Dawson 1923: 998).

The “Cactus Woodpecker” is an old name for a subspecies (P. s. cactophilus) of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker that inhabits the southwestern United States and adjacent Mexico. “Cactus” is an appropriate word to associate with this species, as it frequently forages on and nests in various species of cacti. Within the United States, the Ladder-backed Woodpecker “. . . is the standard small woodpecker of mesquite and cactus lands of the Southwest” (Oberholser 1974c: 524). More specifically, the species is found in deserts, desert scrub, and thorn forests in the southwestern United States and Mexico (Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave deserts) and in open pine and pine–oak woodlands Mexico and Central America (Short 1971, Short 1982, Howell and Webb 1995). In plumage pattern and overall appearance, this small black-and-white woodpecker is very similar to the Nuttall's Woodpecker (P. nuttallii), though their ranges have little overlap. Ladder-backed Woodpecker best distinguished from Nuttall's Woodpecker by having less black on the face and upper back.

Observations on the breeding biology of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker are limited, although many aspects of its biology are undoubtedly similar to those of other Picoides woodpeckers, particularly Nuttall's Woodpecker. Lester Short's monograph on this species provides an extensive, single-source reference as a catalog of behavior and vocalizations (Short 1971). Observations on breeding biology are incidental and superficial rather than results of directed efforts to assess demographic measures.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, P. E., P. Pyle, and M. 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, NY, USA.