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Birding/Ladder Backed Woodpecker

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Question
Dear Sir,

We live in the foothills of California, in Tuolumne County, at about 2,200 feet elevation.  We have a varied habitat for our birdwatching that includes riparian, scrub, oak woodland and urban.  We enjoy a wide diversity of birds at our home, including a year-round presence of Nuttall's woodpeckers.

Beginning about nine days ago, we have been visited several times a day by a pair of birds that were similar to Nuttall's but were just definitely not Nuttall's.  The size is similar, but the stripes on its back begin at the top of its wings, by which I mean it does not have a black band there, followed by its black and white stripes, like the Nuttall.  Also, there is a vertical black band that connects the head to the shoulder in both the male and female Nuttall.  This band is present in the new woodpeckers, but it does not go all the way to the shoulders.  Finally, the black stripes along the back of the body continue all the way down the wings in the new bird.  In the Nuttall's woodpecker, the stripes stop just before the end of the wings, and there is a somewhat brown "triangle" where the wings meet.  There are other differences, but these are the three main ones.

The birds come to our suet feeders.

I apologize for not making myself clearer, and for not using the correct terminology.  We have tried taking pictures, but our camera isn't very good.  We will continue to try.

Our local Audubon Society says they can't be ladder backed woodpeckers, but when we look at them through our binoculars there just doesn't seem to be anything else they could be.  Please tell me what you think and how I can go about getting a firm identification.  

Thank you for your time.

Answer
It's possible that they are Ladder-backed, but highly unlikely. Almost certainly they are Nuttall's. There is a lot of variability in bird plumage - young, old, immature, mature, male , female, etc. and while in the process of molting. The differences you describe are most likely due to that variability in Nuttall's. I agree with the local Audubon Society.

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Roger Lederer

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Any and all about WILD birds - the science of ornithology. Information about birdwatching, ecology, conservation, migration, behavior, banding, rehabilitation, feeding, songs, binoculars, identification, and careers in ornithology. No questions about pet or caged birds, please.

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Have a PhD and over forty years as a professional ornithologist - research, teaching, author, speaker, webmaster of Ornithology.com . Have written thirty scientific papers, three bird field guides, a textbook in ecology four other bird books, the latest being "Beaks, Bones, and Bird Songs". Have traveled to 100 countries watching birds and have spoken to hundreds of groups about birds.

Education/Credentials
PhD in Zoology/Ornithology; Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences; former Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at California State University, Chico

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