For the Birds: Northern Flicker

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Male Red-shafted Flicker. Photo by Christine Southwick.
by Christine Southwick

WOOKA, WOOKA, WOOKA! This loud call is paired with much head bobbing, and is often followed by a resounding KLEEER. Next comes the loud drumming on your metal chimney covers. Flicker mating season has begun.

The only brown woodpecker in North America, this largish bird is readily identified by its undulating roller-coaster flight, and its white rump as it flies up from the ground where it was eating its favorite meal of ants.

There are two forms of the Northern Flicker: the Red-shafted and the Yellow-shafted. Here in Western Washington is one of the few places where both sub-species can be found.

The Red-shafted males have red mustaches; the Yellow-shafted males have black mustaches. Both male and female Yellow-shafted have a red crescent on the back of their heads; the Red-shafted do not. Red-shafted have salmon colored under-sides of their wings and tail; the Yellow-shafted have yellow. Interbreeding creates some interesting looking birds that you won’t find in any bird guides, and that will drive you crazy until you realize that you are looking at an intergrade Northern Flicker.

Male and female Red-shafted Northern Flickers   
Photo by Diana Thompson
Flickers are cavity nesters, with both partners excavating, but the male doing most of the chiseling. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young. From the time the 5-8 eggs are laid until the young leave the nest is about 40 days. The flicker parents feed and teach their young the best foraging sites. It is fun to watch a flicker teach its young to use the suet feeders. Some fledglings catch on quickly, and others need several lessons. Sometimes you can almost hear the parent giving a heavy sigh.

Starting in March, flickers drum to attract a mate and proclaim their territory. If a flicker is drumming on your house, it will cease soon—often as soon as the nest is built.

If you have trouble with a flicker trying to make a nest hole in your house, the solution is pretty easy; put up a nest box made for flickers. The only other reason a flicker would make holes in your siding is to get to bugs—in which case you should have an expert come out and apply an avian-friendly bug-killer.

Female Red Shafted Flicker. Photo by Christine Southwick.
Northern flickers are the primary predators of woodland ants, and are vitally important for the health of northern forests. Northern Flickers are considered a keystone species since the holes they excavate are used by many cavity dwelling birds.

So enjoy the Wooka, Wooka Wooka and the head bobbing of two to five flickers trying to win the “Pick Me” contest. Who says you have to travel to see an enchanting mating ritual?

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Anonymous,  March 31, 2011 at 12:47 PM  

Thank you for the timely and informative article. I am relatively new to the area and have been amazed at how these birds have been pecking away at my metal chimney covers lately, exactly like you described. Now that I know, I wish the little guys luck. Thanks again.

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