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Winter is for the birds . . .

and another opportunity for a global count



Ladder-backed Woodpecker. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published January 20, 2024 in the McAllen Monitor.


Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist


As woodpeckers go, the ladder-backed woodpecker is small, seven and a quarter inches in length and weighing in at just over one ounce. Black and white stripes on the back of the bird go all the way up, like a ladder. Males are topped with a red crown from the eye to back of the head.


Females have no red markings; their cap is black with a buff-colored patch in front of the eyes. They are smaller than males and their black chisel-like beak is noticeably shorter. Both sexes have light grayish to buff colored, black-spotted underparts.


Ladder-backed Woodpecker's slightly speckled front. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

They’re a busy, wily bird, seemingly always in motion, their head a blur as they peck and probe for food in the bark of trees. They are bark foragers. They don’t stay in one spot, tenaciously drilling like our golden-fronted woodpeckers. Instead, they bounce around and up the circumference of a tree trunk, tapping for food. They quickly hop to another limb and circle around it, often grasping the bark with their toes as they hang upside down. And then they shoot off to another tree.


Ladder-backed Woodpecker in silhouette, hanging from mesquite limb. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Woodpeckers’ toes are arranged in an X-pattern, two forward and two backward, which is how they can cling upside down and to vertical surfaces. Perching birds have three forward facing toes and one backward.


The ladder-backed woodpecker’s pecking, probing, tapping, as they forage with split second precision, is quick and decisive; the drumming rapid but short. They can drum about 30 taps per second, according to birdzilla.com. They feed on a variety of insects and their larvae, especially beetles, ants, caterpillars and the large and diverse group of insects called true bugs, like hoppers and aphids.


Both the ladder-backed and the larger golden-fronted woodpeckers – measuring eight-and-one-half to 10 inches in length – are permanent residents in the Rio Grande Valley. Although several golden-fronted woodpeckers are a daily treat in our yard, a single, male ladder-backed woodpecker only visits our line of honey mesquites about twice a year.


Golden-fronted Woodpecker. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Ladder-backed woodpeckers favor mesquite trees in the thorn forests of the Rio Grande Valley; prickly pear and cholla in the deserts and desert scrub habitats of western Texas, according to allaboutbirds.org. They also frequent paloverde, catclaw, yucca, acacia, spiny hackberry and agave stalks. Their foraging agility helps them navigate among thorny plants.


Male ladder-back woodpeckers generally forage on tree trunks and large branches and females more at the outer twigs and bushes and smaller plants.


Ladder-backed Woodpecker eyeing prey. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

December’s annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count tallied both species of local woodpeckers. There is another chance for observing and counting birds.


The upcoming annual Great Backyard Bird Count is an important global opportunity for citizens to help record birds. The GBBC is an inter-organizational effort between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society and Birds Canada. People of all ages participate in this annual community-driven science count, whether logging one or hundreds of birds.


Last year, Texans in 254 counties completed more than 12 thousand checklists and observed 376 species of birds.


Count dates are February 16 through 19 for the 2024 Great Backyard Bird Count.

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All About Birds.org; National Audubon Society; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s ebird.org; Texas A&M University, txtbba.tamu.edu; and Birdzilla.com were helpful in writing this article.

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