Bird GuideWoodpeckersLadder-backed Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Dryobates scalaris

At a Glance

A small woodpecker of arid country. Because of its size, it is able to make a living even in scrubby growth along dry washes (other desert woodpeckers, like Gila Woodpecker and Gilded Flicker, require giant cactus or larger trees for nest sites). Closely related to Nuttall's Woodpecker of the Pacific Coast; their ranges meet in California foothills, and they sometimes interbreed there.
Picidae, Woodpeckers, Tree-clinging Birds
Low Concern
Arroyos and Canyons, Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets, Urban and Suburban Habitats
California, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southwest, Texas
Flap/Glide, Undulating

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Permanent resident throughout its range, which extends as far south as Nicaragua.


7" (18 cm). Similar to Nuttall's but with more white on face, wider white bars on back (especially noticeable on upper back). Drier habitat and different range are best clues. The two species sometimes interbreed where their ranges meet.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Red, Tan, White
Wing Shape
Broad, Rounded, Short
Tail Shape
Multi-pointed, Wedge-shaped

Songs and Calls

A sharp pik, similar to that of Downy Woodpecker; also a descending whinny.
Call Pattern
Call Type
Chirp/Chip, Drum, Rattle, Trill


Deserts, river woods, groves, dry woods, arid brush. In the United States in dry areas of southwest, including brushland, desert washes, mesquites, riverside trees in prairie country, towns. Moves into adjacent habitats such as oaks and pinyon-juniper stands in foothills, woods on Texas coast. In Central America also in thorn forest, pine-oak woods, even coastal mangroves.



3-4, sometimes 2-7) white. Incubation is by both sexes, about 13 days.


Both parents feed the young, bringing insects in their bills to the nest. Age when young leave nest not well known.

Feeding Behavior

Forages on trees, shrubs, cacti, tree yuccas, agave stalks, tall weeds, and sometimes on ground. Male and female often forage together, concentrating on different spots: male more on trunks and big limbs, female more on outer twigs, bushes, cacti. (Male is larger than female, with noticeably longer bill.)


Mostly insects. Feeds on a variety of insects, including beetles and their larvae, caterpillars, true bugs, ants. Also eats some berries and fruit, including cactus fruit.


Pairs may remain more or less together throughout year. Displays (used mostly for territorial defense) include raising head feathers, bobbing and turning head, spreading of wings and tail, fluttering display flight. Nest site is cavity in tree (such as mesquite, hackberry, willow, oak) or in Joshua tree (a yucca) or agave stalk, sometimes in giant cactus, utility pole, fence post. Both sexes probably excavate but male may do most of work. Cavity usually 4-20' above ground, sometimes higher.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Surveys suggest a slight decline in recent years, but still fairly common and widespread.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.