Bird of the Week: Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris)

Like their name suggests, the Ladder-backed Woodpecker has stripes of alternating black and white running along their backs, and the males sport a striking red cap on their crowns. They grace us with their presence year-round as arid country serves as their habitat, and central Texas certainly meets that criteria, especially this year.

Once known as the “Cactus Woodpecker,” the Ladder-backed Woodpecker is at home in desert scrub, thorn forests, pinyon pine, and pinyon-junipers. I’ve had a nesting pair in my backyard for the past four years, and the male lets me know when the suet is missing or too dried out to be appetizing, giving me his “peek” call. If I refill the suet while he’s around, he will attach to my suet feeder even when I’m standing close by. The female is a little shyer. Females are generally smaller than the males, who also have a noticeably longer beak. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is smaller overall than most woodpeckers, being slightly smaller than a robin but larger than a sparrow.

Outside of suet, these handsome birds eat mostly insect larvae and sometimes adult insects – including leafworms, ants, caterpillars, and wood-boring beetles. They glean their food while hanging upside down or balancing with their wings spread. They rarely dig deeply into wood, and unlike other species of woodpeckers, they do not cache food or hunt while on the wing.

A mating pair will remain together throughout the year, and the males do a majority of the work in preparing the nesting cavity, generally found 2 to 30 feet up and measuring up to 14 inches deep and 3 and a quarter inches across. They don’t build a nest in the cavity, but they may soften it with a few feathers. The female will lay 3 to 4 eggs which will incubate for up to 14 days before hatching. Both parents are active in feeding the young, bringing insects to the nest.

Nesting boxes won’t help you attract this species since they generally don’t use them, but if you put out mealworms and suet, you may be able to entice them to your feeder. Planting native vegetation and leaving dead trees standing may also attract them for nesting season.


Compiled by Lisa S. Graham.  Sources include All About Birds (Cornell) and Audubon Field Guide.

Photo credit:  Edward Plumer – Macaulay Library