For the Birds: Northern Flickers—The Woodpecker with the Flashy Wardrobe

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Male Red-shafted Flicker taking bath. Note red mustache line.
Photo by Christine Southwick

By Christine Southwick

Northern flickers are basically brown-colored woodpeckers, whereas most North American woodpeckers are combinations of black and white. What makes Northern Flickers so delightful is the black barring on their brown wings, a dark crescent at their neckline, and black centers on their brown breasts. Red-shafted Flickers, our predominate flicker, have a tan cap, with a sienna eye patch, and if it is a male, a red-colored mustache line.

Add to that a white rump patch, and red-shafted (salmon-colored really) or yellow-shafted feathers showing on the under-side of their wings as they fly away in their roller-coaster pattern, and you have quite a spiffy  bird.

female Northern Flicker using suet feeder
designed for woodpeckers
Photo by Christine Southwick
Since ants are Northern Flickers' favorite food, they can often be found on the ground, an unusual place to find a woodpecker. In the spring, males can be found on resonating surfaces, like your chimney cap, drumming away to attract females.

Males excavate the nest for 5-8 eggs, with some help from the female. Both parents feed their young, and the fledglings are taught where the best foods are found. It is quite a treat to watch the parent teaching its young how to harvest suet, while the youngsters hang on at the same time.

Red-shafted Flickers commonly stay on their breeding grounds; some come down from higher elevations in the winter. Yellow-shafted Flickers migrate much further, and become more common here during the winter. Many of the yellow-shafted that winter here migrate from Alaska and the northern Rocky Mountains.

This blending of populations has created intergrades—flickers that have some combination of both Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted—pictures of which you won’t find in most birding books. One of the most common result is a Red-shafted with the red nape-spot of the yellow-shafted; another expression is a yellow-shafted with the red-shafted red moustache, instead of its normal black mustache.

Close up showing barring and spotting. It is a Red-Shafted
 since it has no spot on nape of neck. Sex not identifiable in picture,
Photo by Christine Southwick

Because their abandoned nests are later used by other birds, mammals and reptiles that are unable to make their own holes, the Northern Flicker is an important species of our open woods.

Flickers will use nest boxes, and if you fill it with wood shavings, the flickers will  use the box, and the starlings will ignore it.

Presently Northern Flickers are the most common woodpecker in North American. Loss of habitat, specifically loss of large dead or dying trees, and fragmentation of habitat appear to be reducing their population.

Previous 'For the Birds' columns can be found on our main webpage under Features.


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