Ladder-Backed Woodpecker

Bird of the Month by Russ Chappell

Around seven inches in length, weighing up to 1.7 ounces and with wingspans of around 13 inches, ladder-backed woodpeckers have quadrangular heads, short necks, a red crown for males and black for females, small, chisel-shaped bills, and rigid tails that provide stability while foraging. They are black-and-white on top with well defined stripes mimicking ladder rungs on their backs, have irregular wing patterns, off-white to grayish underparts dappled with black, and buff-white faces with black stripes that contribute to their beauty.

Photos by John West

Like most woodpeckers, they have four toes arranged in an X pattern, two set forward and two backward (known as "zygodactyl"), allowing them to cling to vertical surfaces more easily or firmly than perching species. While foraging for insects they pick, flick, pry and tap with their bills, and are extremely acrobatic, twisting and turning, balancing with wings open and hanging upside-down while seeking their next meal.

Easier to spot while they are noisily focused on creating and raising a families and defending their territories in spring, they are non-migratory, around throughout the year. However, they can be inconspicuous, and locating one can require considerable time and patience. Mealworms, black oil sunflower seeds and suet, and a hint of peanut butter may attract them to your feeder, but usually they are foraging among trees and other places where insects abound.

The male does most of the nesting-cavity excavation, usually in a large tree, creating an oval opening between 1.25 and 1.6 inches in diameter, seven to 14 inches deep, with an inside bottom diameter of around 3.25 inches. The cavity is normally lined with a few feathers. There is one brood per season consisting of two to seven white eggs, less than an inch in length and half an inch wide. The young are born naked and helpless.

Ladder-backed woodpeckers are not threatened, with a Continental Concern Score of nine out of twenty. This is a species you will long remember when sighted, and is an excellent addition to any birder’s list.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online

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