Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ladder-backed and Nuttall's Woodpeckers

Also at the Bentson State Park bird feeders was the Ladder-backed Woodpecker (above), a common bird of the southwest. This "zebra-backed" woodpecker is quite similar to the Nuttall's Woodpecker (below) found in the oak woodlands California.  Fortunately for birders trying to identify them, the two species' ranges barely overlap. (In the limited area of overlap, the two species have been known to hybridize.)

In my photos, the Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a male and the Nuttall's is a female--hence the red on the Ladder-back's head, which is not present on the female Nuttall's. Only one of the field marks mentioned by Sibley to separate these woodpeckers is evident in my photographs. Note the upper back on these birds. On the Ladder-backed Woodpecker, the upper back is whitish with thin black stripes. In the Nuttall's Woodpecker, in a photograph from the California coast, the upper back is solid black. Sibley's suggestion that the feathers behind the bill (the lores) are white in the Ladder-backed and buffy on the Nuttall's are not born out by my photos.
Despite both species' being common within their respective ranges, neither woodpecker has been well-studied by ornithologists. With few exceptions, observations on the breeding biology of both birds tend to be "incidental and superficial" (Lowther 2000, 2001).


  1. just watched a bird out my studio window could have been these or nuttall's. Moved around the trunk while pecking

    Los Osos California oct 2 2019

  2. I'm in suburbs of Cincinnati Ohio and have seen this bird at my feeder for a couple months. Just looked up and am surprised at where their range is supposed to be. Any other birds look like the Nuttall from my area???

  3. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are larger but similarly plumaged.