Bird of the Month: Ladder-back Woodpecker

Ladder-Backed Woodpecker
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris), Male, Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by By Alan D. Wilson,
When I saw my first Ladder-backed Woodpecker, I did a double-take. Oh, I knew it was a woodpecker, alright, but it was on a Red Yucca Stalk. Everyone knows, or so I thought, that woodpeckers forage on trees, not mere plants. Well, guess what? “Ladder backs” will also alight on chaparral bushes, and I’ve even seen them on weed stems. When you think about it, that makes sense. They don’t avoid trees, but in much of their approximately three million square kilometer range (about 1,158,306 square miles), trees are scarce, so they have learned to adapt.

The Ladder-backed is a small (16.5—19 cm or 6.5 —7.5 inches from tip of bill to tip of tail) woodpecker that inhabits much of the arid Southwestern US. The northern boundary of its range stretches from southern California and Nevada southeast across Arizona, then northwest across New Mexico, with a small spur jutting into Colorado, then about halfway across the Oklahoma panhandle. From there, the range extends south, throughout most of Mexico, with a separate population in the Nicaraguan pine forests.

“Ladder backs” follow the dominant woodpecker plumage pattern of black and white upperparts and white underparts spotted/streaked with black. Their name comes from the horizontal barring on their back that looks like ladder rungs. Both sexes have a black stripe through the eye that circles down at about the ear and returns across the side of the head to the base of the bill. The cap is different, though: on males, it’s red; on females, black. Juveniles—both sexes—have red (duller, less extensive than the adult male) on their heads.

So, if you’re out in the desert and see a small woodpecker hitching its way up a yucca stalk, or an even less substantial bit of vegetation, don’t panic! It doesn’t mean you’re suffering from sun-stroke or dehydration. You’re just seeing one of the signature birds of this part of the world—A Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

From a species at home in arid climes that has developed rather unusual habits to adapt to its environment, we turn to some recent sightings of species whose “unusualness” is that they aren’t normally seen in our area. First, a word on my source for these sightings. It is, the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society’s web site. If you go there and click on Bird Sightings, you’ll see a compilation of Doña Ana County sightings going back to at least 1994.

A recent unusual species that caught my eye were at least five Pygmy Nuthatches in the Arborvitae trees by Caffey Lane in Mesilla Park. This tiny bird is small even by Nuthatch standards and it almost never strays far from mature Ponderosa Pine stands in the mountains. So, what were a jar of them (yup! According to that’s the collective noun for Nuthatches) doing in Mesilla Park on the 24th of September? I don’t know.

Then, there was the Dickcissel seen at the WSMR golf course the previous day. While you can see Pygmy Nuthatches by going up into the Sacramentos or over around Silver City, the closest point to us in this bird’s normal range is in the middle of Texas. Again, what gives? The most likely explanation is weather-related, as storms and their after effects can blow birds off course.

Another recent rarity was a young Sabine’s Gull seen September 10 at the West Mesa Sewage Treatment Pond just a bit over a mile and a half south of I-10 exit 132. This gull nests on Alaska’s east and north coasts, in eastern Canada and Newfoundland, migrating along both coasts several miles at sea. Another wind driven stray? Probably.

For more information about the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, go to