How to Identify a Ladder-Backed Woodpecker

Updated: Jan. 02, 2024

Meet the ladder-backed woodpecker. This delightful bird makes its home in the harsh conditions of southwestern deserts.

What Does a Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Look Like?

ladder backed woodpeckerCourtesy Lisa Welch
A male ladder-backed woodpecker

Male and female ladder-backed woodpeckers both feature a “ladder” of white and black coloration on their wings and backs, as well as white and black markings on their breasts and a black stripe running over their eyes. Males have a reddish cap. Females feature black coloration at the top of the head.

This species is similar in appearance to the Nuttall’s woodpecker. However, male Nuttall’s woodpeckers’ red crown appears farther back on its head, and the white stripes on Nuttall’s woodpeckers’ faces are thinner. Interestingly, where their ranges overlap, the two species may interbreed.

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Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Habitat

Ladder backed woodpecker resting on Ganders ChollaPhoto by Patricia Ware/Getty Images
Ladder-backed woodpecker in the Anza Borrego desert, California.

These woodpeckers’ incredible ability to survive the harsh habitat of the desert makes them truly fascinating. Often spotted in dry, unforgiving environments in the southern section of their range, they’re frequently seen on several species of cacti, as well as agave and Joshua tree. In the northern section of their range, they appear in pinyon woods (also home to the pinyon jay).

In the United States, ladder-backed woodpeckers predominantly appear in the southwest. They inhabit most of Texas, the eastern half of New Mexico, and the western and southern halves of Arizona. They’re a common sight in southeastern California as well. Less commonly, these birds are sighted in Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, or Utah.

Bbas14 KellywalkottenCourtesy Kelly Walkotten
This woodpecker can be found in same southwestern deserts as the pyrrhuloxia.

“While photographing wild birds in Arizona, I found this male ladder-backed woodpecker (above) hunting for bugs on a dead branch. Suddenly, a male pyrrhuloxia landed on the same branch. Each seemed surprised to see the other there. After a brief standoff, the pyrrhuloxia flew away,” says Birds & Blooms reader Kelly Walkotten.

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What Do Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers Eat?

306637453 2 Leah Woodhall Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Leah Woodhall
If you are lucky, you might see one of these woodpeckers at your bird feeder.

Since ladder-backed woodpeckers eat mostly insects, they’re not as easy to bring to your backyard as typical songbirds. With that said, you can try putting out mealworms for them. Like other woodpeckers, they’ll also eat suet, peanut butter, and black oil sunflower seeds.

They don’t store or cache their food, which sets them apart from other woodpecker species such as the acorn or red-headed woodpecker.

“I had just moved to a rural town in Arizona. Looking out of my kitchen window, I had so many kinds of birds feeding at my feeders that I had to get a book to identify them all. One of my favorite visitors is this ladder-backed woodpecker (above). If you look closely at his shoulder, it looks like it has tiny hearts in the feathers,” says Birds & Blooms reader Leah Woodhall.

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Nesting Habits

Ladder-backed woodpeckers lay two to seven eggs in cavities in large trees. Nests are typically found between 4 and 30 feet off the ground. Both parents incubate eggs for about two weeks, but little research exists to show how many days the baby birds remain in the nest.

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Ladder-backed woodpeckerMary Ann McDonald/Getty Images
Both males and females are vocal

Both males and females use a high-pitched peek call, sometimes to communicate when away from the nest. A rattling call is also heard. As with other woodpecker species, males drum to mark their territory.

Next, find out why woodpeckers peck and how to stop it.