The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Our Neighborhood Woodpecker
by Ro Wauer

Like so many of our resident birds this time of year, ladder-backs are more obvious than normal. This primarily is due to the youngsters that are out and about, searching for food and calling to the adults, perhaps thinking that they still may get a free handout. Although we have five kinds of woodpeckers in our area year-round, the easiest to identify is the ladder-back, because of its small size and black-and-white barred back. The underside is buffy with small black spots. The cheeks are white with black lines, and the males possess a red cap; female caps are black.

The other small woodpecker that is possible is the downy woodpecker that is seldom seen away from riparian habitats along the rivers and streams, and downys possess a white back, not barred. The largest of our woodpeckers, also usually found only in riparian habitats, is the pileolated woodpecker, the one with a tall, red crest that reminds most people of the “woody woodpecker” character. And the two mid-sized woodpeckers that look very much alike are the red-bellied and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Red-bellys also frequent riparian areas, but can often be found in broadleaf habitats throughout our area, even in well wooded urban settings. The look-alike golden-fronted woodpeckers prefer drier habitats and barely reach Victoria County. It is much more numerous in southern DeWitt and Bee Counties and southward. Both of these woodpeckers possess a barred back and gray underparts and cheeks. Red-bellys have a reddish belly and nape, while golden-fronted woodpeckers have a golden nape and gold spot at the base of the bill. In addition, three additional woodpeckers are possible: red-headed woodpeckers can wander into our area from the eastern forests, and the northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker are fairly common in winter.

Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and the ladder-back is no exception. It is small enough to utilize wood fence posts, utility poles, and reasonably small trees. And in West Texas, ladder-backs often construct nest cavities in century plant stalks. The nests are used only during the first season, and the next season is utilized by the equally small elf owls in the Big Bend Country and by ferruginous pygmy-owls in extreme South Texas.

The diet of ladder-backs includes both fruit and invertebrates that they find by foraging on bark and among dead leaves. Wood-boring insects, their larvae and eggs, ants, weevils, and caterpillars are utilized. Fruit can vary, but in cactus-country they seem to enjoy tunas; in fact one of the earlier names of this little woodpecker in Southwest Texas was “cactus” ladder-backed woodpecker.

Behavior is fairly typical of all woodpeckers. Their flight is generally straight but undulating, but rarely any great distance. And ladder-backs have a habit of calling a sharp “peek” note in flight. They also possess a longer rattle-call, a “keek” note, and a few other notes that are seldom heard. In addition, although most of their insect food is found by foraging on the bark, they may descend to the ground in their search for insects, and they can drill into the bark to extract insect larvae, as well to excavate nests.

There is little question about which woodpecker is our most common and most interesting. There are few places in South Texas where one cannot find and enjoy one of these little woodpeckers.

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