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Long before my bird-watching interest had taken hold, there was one bird that I could readily recognize, and each sighting of this bird brought me feelings of scorn and irritation. That bird was the Northern Flicker. To me, this bird was a pest, only too happy to drill holes in the side of our house with its persistent tapping. Even worse, it loved to use our metal chimney cover as an audio accessory, loudly clanging on it early in the morning to announce its presence and mark its territory. Only after I began bird-watching, and learning more about birds, did I begin to appreciate the Northern Flicker. Over time I came to appreciate it, looking forward to hearing its call or seeing the burst of color (red in Colorado) visible under its wings and tail that accompany its sudden launch into flight from a nearby limb or spot on the ground.
As I continued to get more into bird-watching, I also learned that the Northern Flicker and I share a trait–we both have relatives living in Arizona–for me, an aunt and two cousins; for the Northern Flicker, it is the closely related Gilded Flicker. I now look forward to future visits to Arizona to visit not only my relatives but hopefully to spot the Gilded Flicker as well!
The Gilded Flicker is so closely related to the Northern Flicker that up until only a few decades ago it was considered a member of the Northern Flicker species (along with the “Red-shafted” and “Yellow-shafted” flickers). However, in the 1990s, the Gilded Flicker was promoted to a separate species, Colaptes chrysoides. This was done because the Gilded Flicker has a pretty distinct territorial range that only barely overlaps with the Northern Flicker, and it does not interbreed with the Northern Flicker as much as was previously thought. Not only is the Gilded Flicker now considered its own species–it has four subspecies as well. They are:
- Colaptes chrysoides brunnescens – Brown Gilded Flicker, found in the northern and central regions of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico
- Colaptes chrysoides chrysoides – Cape Gilded Flicker, found in the southern region of the Baja California peninsula
- Colaptes chrysoides mearnsi – Mearn’s Gilded Flicker, found in the southern half of Arizona, the southeastern tip of California, and the northwestern regions of Mexico; this is the only Gilded Flicker subspecies found in the United States
- Colaptes chrysoides tenebrosus – Mexican Gilded Flicker (or just Gilded Flicker), found in the northwest regions of Mexico
There is little difference in the physical appearance of these subspecies. Rather, the primary differentiators are the ranges in which they are located.
Taxonomy at a Glance
- Domain: Eukaryota
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Piciformes
- Family: Picidae
- Genus: Colaptes
- Species: Colaptes chrysoides
- Colaptes chrysoides brunnescens
- Colaptes chrysoides chrysoides
- Colaptes chrysoides mearnsi
- Colaptes chrysoides tenebrosus
How to Identify the Gilded Flicker
The Gilded Flicker is a good-sized bird, measuring almost a foot in length with a wingspan of roughly eighteen inches and weighing about four ounces. Like the Northern Flicker, the Gilded Flicker has a distinctive appearance, with a pleasant and interesting combination of colors and markings that make it relatively easy to recognize.
Gilded Flickers have a tan cap on the top of their head. Their face, cheeks, and neck are a solid light gray. Their beak is grayish black with a slight downward curve and is about the same length as their head. They have a distinct black patch on their chest, just below the front of their neck, which makes it look like they are wearing a black bib (perhaps in anticipation of their next meal?). The Gilded Flicker’s belly is white or very light gray, with black spots. Their backs are light tan-gray with black spots that form bars when their wings are closed. The tips of their wings and tails are black. However, the underside of their wings and tails are bright yellow, which can be seen when they take flight.
These colors and markings are the same for male and female Gilded Flickers. However, the males also have one other distinctive marking–a bright red “mustache” mark on each side of their face, extending back from the base of their beak. Female Gilded Flickers do not have this marking–this is the primary difference in appearance between the two sexes.
Juvenile Gilded Flickers have the same coloring and markings as described above. However, their colors may be less bright and distinct while they are young, becoming brighter and more defined as the bird matures.
Two species that the Gilded Flicker bears some resemblance to are the Northern Flicker and the Gila Woodpecker, but close observation will reveal differences that should make it easy to differentiate the Gilded Flicker:
- vs. Northern Flicker: The only type of Northern Flicker whose territory overlaps with the Gilded Flicker is the “Red-Shafted” Northern Flicker (which is found in the western United States). The key distinction to look for–this Northern Flicker will have red coloring on the underside of its tail and wings, as opposed to the yellow coloring found under the wings and tail of the Gilded Flicker. The Gilded Flicker is also slightly smaller than its Northern Flicker relatives (an example of Bergmann’s Rule, which states that when related species are found in multiple climates, those living in warmer climates will tend to be slightly smaller in size).
- vs. Gila Woodpecker: At first glance, this bird may look similar to a Gilded Woodpecker, and their ranges do overlap, but even a cursory observation will reveal several differences. The male Gila Woodpecker has no “mustache” markings, instead having a red cap. Gila Woodpeckers are a bit smaller and stockier than Gilded Flickers. Gila Woodpeckers have tan faces, necks, and bellies (with no spots on their bellies), and their backs are black and white (versus the black and tan of the Gilded Flicker).
In the wild, you might hear a Gilded Flicker before you ever see it. They have a distinctive long call, similar to that of the Northern Flicker– a series of high-pitched wik-wik-wik-wik notes, all at the same pitch, that they may repeat for several seconds. They also make other vocal calls, including shorter high-pitched plea notes and frantic-sounding flicka sounds while they are in flight.
In addition to these vocalizations, the Gilded Flickers also announce their presence through percussion. Like other woodpecker bird types, they will drum, hitting their beaks against wood or another hard surface (including metal chimney covers!) to announce their presence, mark their territory, or attract or communicate with a mate. When working on a nest, they also can be heard tap-tap-tapping away as they excavate and shape the nest cavity.
Where Does the Gilded Flicker Live: Habitat
The range where the Gilded Flicker is found is mostly limited to the Sonoran desert regions of southern Arizona, southeastern California, northwestern Mexico, and the Baja California peninsula. Gilded Flickers like to be around giant cacti, such as the stately Saguaro cactus found in Arizona, and the giant Cardon cactus of the Mexican desert. At the edges of their geographical ranges, where cacti may not be readily found, they will also live in wooded areas near water, such as forests that contain cottonwood or willow trees. Gilded Flickers are not migratory, traveling only short distances in a localized area for the duration of their lives.
Gilded Flicker Diet and Feeding
The diet of the Gilded Flicker is made up of a variety of bugs, fruit, seeds, and nuts, but their favorite food source is ants. To say that Gilded Flickers have a taste for ants is an understatement–Flickers in general eat more ants than any other type of bird in North America. They can often be seen hopping about on the ground, foraging for their favorite meal. They use their strong beak to probe into the ground or plants and use their long tongues to lap up any yummy ants they come across. Flickers lucky enough to come across a busy ant hill may spend hours dining at this veritable buffet!
In addition to ants, Gilded Flickers will also make a quick meal out of other insects they come across while foraging on the ground, or in a cactus or tree. Caterpillars, wasps, beetles, and other insect larvae are all acceptable supplements to their ant-heavy diet. In colder weather when ants and other insects may be harder to find, Gilded Flickers will make do with berries, nuts, seeds, and cactus fruit as an additional source of nutrition for their diet.
Gilded Flicker Breeding
Gilded Flickers are thought to be primarily monogamous, and will pair up with a mate for life. If one member of a mating pair dies or disappears, the other bird may find a new mate to replace its lost partner. Male Gilded Flickers will establish breeding territories and will mark these territories and announce their presence and availability through calls and drumming to begin the courtship process. This courtship process typically takes place in the Spring, in the April to May timeframe.
When a male Gilded Flicker sees a potential mate in his territory, he will begin his courtship display. This display entails calling attention to himself in a variety of ways, all to attract and impress his prospective female partner. The male Gilded Flicker will draw attention through vocal calls and drumming. He may also move his head from side to side. When he catches a female’s eye, he will often spread his wings to show off the bright yellow undersides, hoping this avian “bling” is enough to land a mate!
If the courtship is successful and a male and female Gilded Flicker are paired up, they will mate and then the breeding process will continue from there. The male and female Gilded Flicker both take an active role in preparing for and raising their new family.
Gilded Flicker Nesting
Once mating has taken place, the male and female Gilded Flickers work together to build their nest. Gilded Flickers highly prefer a giant saguaro (or cardon) cactus as the location for their new home, often at the edge of a clearing where there is open space nearby. When they are excavating into the cactus, the cactus will ooze sap over the newly exposed surfaces. This sap hardens and protects the cactus from water loss. If no giant cacti are available, the pair may instead build the nest in a cottonwood or willow tree (preferring dead wood when possible) or even a wooden post if necessary.
The nest is typically built and completed early in the season, possibly to beat the heat of the oncoming summer in the desert. The finished nest cavity is quite large–typically over a foot deep into the cactus or tree. The diameter of the burrowed cavity is roughly five inches, and the entryway is about three inches in diameter. The Gilded Flicker prefers a very sparse interior decoration scheme–the nest is typically not lined or floored with any additional materials, just the interior surfaces of the host cactus or tree. Once the nest is completed, the Gilded Flicker pair establish their nesting territory. The male and female work together to identify and assertively defend their nesting territory. They will use calls and loud drumming to warn other birds that might try to encroach into their neighborhood boundaries.
Gilded Flickers do such a great job building their nests that they may often end up as homes for other creatures once the Gilded Flicker pair has moved on. Other birds, squirrels, and even snakes or lizards may move into abandoned Gilded Flicker nest cavities and make them their new home. Occasionally, European Starlings have been known to make a move on a Gilded Flicker nest while it is still occupied by the Gilded Flickers, but the large size and aggressive defensive behavior of the Gilded Flickers usually allow them to fend off the trespassing Starlings.
Gilded Flicker Eggs
Once the nest is completed, the female will lay her eggs. Gilded Flicker clutches are typically three to five eggs. The eggs are plain white in color and oval in shape, measuring just over an inch long and just under an inch wide. Initially, the female does most of the incubation of the new eggs, but as the days pass the male starts to take on and share incubation duties, with the male typically taking the night shift. The male and female both stay in or around the nest during this incubation period.
In about two weeks the young Gilded Flickers will begin to hatch from their eggs, with all babies typically hatching over the course of a day or two. When they first emerge from the eggs they are helpless and have no feathers. The father and mother share the feeding duties, going out on food runs and coming back to regurgitate the nourishment into the mouths of their young chicks. This goes on for about four weeks, after which the young begin to move around and leave the nest, sometimes climbing to the top of the tree or cactus to wait for feeding. The parents will continue to feed them for a few weeks after they begin moving around, but they gradually reduce this support, encouraging the young to begin fending for themselves. Eventually, the young Gilded Flickers will not be fed by their parents, instead following them out into the world to learn to find food for themselves. Families of Gilded Flickers may be seen feeding together in the same area throughout the rest of the season until the young birds move on.
A Gilded Flicker pair will typically raise one to two broods (with one being the most common) in a single breeding season.
Gilded Flicker Population
The total population of Gilded Flickers is estimated to be about 770,000 according to Partners in Flight. Some birding surveys seem to show a slight decline in the population of Gilded Flickers over the last century.
Is the Gilded Flicker Endangered?
Although population numbers for the Gilded Flicker seem to have trended downward over the past century, it is not considered an endangered species. The Gilded Flicker has a Conservation Status of Least Concern from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, Partners in Flight placed the Gilded Flicker on their Yellow Watch List, meaning the bird has shown a downward trend in population, but still has a high enough total population and is not facing a strong enough threat to be considered more endangered at this time.
Gilded Flicker Habits
The Gilded Flicker is very similar to the Northern Flicker and exhibits many similar behaviors and habits. One such habit is partaking in “fencing matches”, where two males participate in a duel of sorts, using their beaks. When a male is defending his territory against another male, he may challenge him to such a duel. The two birds will wield their beaks like swords, parrying back and forth, accompanied by calling and drumming. If a female happens to be watching the duel gets even more energetic, but never seems to result in one bird actually attacking another. This same “fencing” activity may also occur between a mating male and female pair.
One interesting trait that is exhibited by newly hatched Gilded Flickers is a buzzing sound they make shortly after they hatch. This strange buzzing, which somewhat resembles the sound of a swarm of bees, is thought to be a deterrent to scare off any would-be predators that might come close to the nest. The baby Gilded Flickers continue to make this sound until they are a bit older and have their full complement of feathers.
Gilded Flickers seem to prefer the peace and quiet of rural desert areas, and are a bit less likely to be found amid the hustle and bustle of human-developed areas than their Northern Flicker counterparts. However, they are not complete hermits–they have been known to visit feeders, especially those stocked with nuts or fruit. They may also occasionally take up residence in a neighborhood cactus or tree.
Gilded Flickers may breed with Northern Flickers in the small areas where their ranges overlap. The resulting hybrid offspring may exhibit a combination of markings and coloring from the two species. For example, they may look like a Gilded Flicker, but with reddish coloring under their wings and tail (as seen with a red-shafted Northern Flicker) instead of the yellow coloring that is typical for a Gilded Flicker.
One peculiar habit of the Gilded Flicker (along with its relative the Northern Flicker, and many other bird species as well) is a behavior called “anting”. This activity involves picking up ants and rubbing them on their feathers and body, or even lying on an active ant nest and allowing the ants to crawl all over their feathers. There are several theories as to why this is done. One theory is that this serves a grooming function for the birds. Another theory is that when the ants are threatened in this way, they spray formic acid, which, as it is rubbed into the bird’s feathers helps eliminate parasites. Yet another theory is that when the ants spray their formic acid, they are then tastier for consumption. And yet another theory is that the birds do this just because it feels good and it becomes a habit (a pretty gross habit, but is it any worse than smoking cigarettes is for humans?)!
Gilded Flicker Predators
In the wild, Gilded Flickers must be wary of a variety of natural predators. Adult Gilded Flickers have to be on the lookout for birds of prey such as the Cooper’s Hawk or the Sharp-shinned Hawk that are adept at hunting and feeding on other birds. While foraging on the ground they may be vulnerable to snakes or lizards. Like many birds, they are at their most vulnerable while in the nest, either as eggs or young hatchlings, when they may fall prey to predators like crows, ravens, or even raccoons.
Another risk faced by the Gilded Flicker is the change to its habitat. Urbanization and the development of land can reduce the natural habitat available to the Gilded Flicker. As cities in the Southwest have expanded, more of the desert has been claimed for human populations, leaving smaller areas in which the Gilded Flickers can comfortably make their homes. Natural disasters like brush fires, which can kill large numbers of their favorite nesting site, the saguaro cactus, may also negatively impact the survival of the Gilded Flicker.
Gilded Flicker Lifespan
The oldest documented lifespan of a Gilded Flicker was over 6 years. Their cousin, the Northern Flicker, can live up to nine years, and there is little reason to think the Gilded Flicker would not have a similar lifespan. However, the challenges for a bird living in the wild mean that the average lifespan is likely much less than this, possibly only a few years.
Answer: First, as with any bird, make sure you are in their geographical range–namely the desert regions of southern Arizona, southeastern California, and northwestern Mexico or the Baja California peninsula. Gilded Flickers tend to prefer the peace of the rural desert areas, so in these areas, your best bet would be to head out into the open desert, especially early in the morning before the heat has become oppressive. Listen for their calls and you might spot them perched on the tops of the cacti, or look for them foraging on the ground for ants or other food.
Answer: There are multiple possible explanations for the origin of the name “flicker”. One is that this represents the sound of their call (flicka-flicka-flicka). Another source stated that the name “flicker” refers to the fact that the bright yellow or red burst of color visible under their wings when they take flight resembles a flickering flame.
Answer: Gilded Flickers are quite similar to other Flicker species, and in fact, until a few decades ago they were grouped into one species with their red-shafted and yellow-shafted Northern Flicker relatives. However, they were separated due to a few factors. One main reason was the specificity of their geographic range, which barely overlaps with the range of red-shafted Northern Flickers (and not at all with yellow-shafted Northern Flickers). There are also slight differences in appearance–Gilded Flickers tend to be slightly smaller than Northern Flickers. The “mustache” markings on the face of a male Gilded Flicker are red, as opposed to the black markings on a yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. Also, Gilded Flickers have yellow coloring under their wings and tail, which differs from the red color under the wings and tail of a red-shafted Northern Flicker.
- Peterson, Roger Tory. (2010). Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (4th Edition). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
- All About Birds
- Animal Diversity Web
- Beauty of Birds
- Macaulay Library
- Partners In Flight
- Science World
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