Introduction / Taxonomy
When does a woodpecker not peck wood? When it’s a Flicker! Northern Flickers are a rather peculiar member of the woodpecker family with a very different foraging technique from their congeners. While most woodpeckers climb trees and peck away at the bark to find food, Flickers spend much time on the ground probing the soil.
Like many other woodpeckers they have beautiful plumage with intricate markings, and often first alert you to their presence with their loud vocalizations. Flickers are not discreet birds, and if you have them in your area you will certainly know about them, they are an entertaining joy to have around.
There are ten subspecies of Northern Flicker, some of which overlap, while some are found in distinct isolated or island populations. There are some subtle plumage differences between them.
The two eastern subspecies are often grouped and known as ‘Yellow-shafted Flicker’
- C.a.auratus of the southeast USA
- C.a.luteus from central Alaska east through Canada and the northeast USA
The five western subspecies are grouped and known as ‘Red-shafted Flicker’
- C.a.cafer of southeast Alaska, far west Canada, and far west USA
- C.a.collaris from southwest USA to west Mexico
- C.a.rufipileus of Guadalupe Island, northwest Mexico (this subspecies is now sadly extinct)
- C.a.mexicanus of west and southwest Mexico
- C.a.nanus of the southwest USA and northeast Mexico
In the Caribbean and Central America are:
- C.a.mexicanoides from south Mexico to Nicaragua
- C.a.gundlachi of Grand Cayman Island
- C.a.chrysocaulosus of Cuba
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Piciformes
- Family: Picidae
- Genus: Colaptes
- Species: Colaptes auratus
How to Identify a Northern Flicker
Northern Flickers are distinctive birds and should not cause much of an identification challenge, even if seen distantly or briefly. They are a large woodpecker, smaller only than Pileated Woodpeckers (and the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker) in North America and this size is quite apparent, even in flight. The overall coloration is gray-brown, with bold black barring on the back and upper wing, a solid black chest crescent, and neat black spots on the underside.
The tail is black, with black and white barring on the upper tail coverts and a white rump that stands out well in flight, a good way of identifying a bird flying away from you. The head and face pattern varies and is usually the most noticeable area of plumage differences between subspecies, at least on perched birds. Birds in eastern North America, Cuba, and Grand Cayman Island have a dull pink face and a gray crown and nape, with a small red patch on the back of the head, males have a black mustache.
In West USA they have a gray head and a dull ginger eyebrow, males have a red mustache, and females have a ginger mustache. The subspecies mexicanoides in south Central America have a ginger crown and nape, the male has a red mustache and the females is ginger.
In flight, the other difference between subspecies becomes apparent: the color of the shafts of the flight feathers, most strongly on the underside of the outer wings and the tail. Western birds have red shafts, in eastern USA and the Caribbean they are yellow, in Central America they are orange.
Where subspecies overlap and hybridization occurs, features get mixed and birds cannot be easily assigned. I frequently hear Northern Flickers before I see them, a loud ki-ki-ki-ki, or peow is a good indicator that there is one around and helps to confirm their presence in a woodland even if I just get a fleeting glimpse between the leaves.
Where Do Northern Flickers Live: Habitat
As a member of the woodpecker family, Northern Flickers do need some trees, though they are less dependent on continuous forest cover than other species. Open woodland, parks, gardens, forest edge, and lightly wooded farmland and grasslands are preferred habitats. They are not an uncommon bird in cities and residential areas with just a small fragment of habitat.
Even wetter habitats like swamps are regularly used, provided there are a few trees around. This broad habitat choice has allowed Northern Flickers to live throughout almost all of North America, from the treeline in Alaska and northern Canada all the way down south through Mexico and into Central America.
Northern Flicker Migration
Another trait of the Northern Flicker that is unusual among woodpeckers is that some populations are long-distance migrants. Birds breeding in east Canada will migrate to the southeast USA and those breeding in west Canada will go to California. This migration can be very visible and quite spectacular for lucky observers who witness the peak of migration.
While a lot of the journey is undertaken at night, birdwatchers arriving at a migration watch point early in the morning may witness large numbers moving by before they find a woodland to rest and feed during the day. They often travel in flocks, from just a few individuals to several dozen.
They try to avoid crossing large waterbodies so can become concentrated together at the narrowest crossing, I’ve seen over one hundred in a day passing by one fall morning at Long Point, Ontario as they take the shortest route over Lake Eerie. At Cape May New Jersey and Fire Island, New York thousands have been seen migrating along the shoreline in a day.
Migration in western North America is less geographically focused and thus more discreet, as is spring migration in the east. Peak fall migration occurs from late September to early October, and birds return to breeding grounds in the spring between late March and early April.
Northern Flicker Diet and Feeding
Northern Flickers feed mostly on the ground rather than on tree trunks like most other woodpeckers but like to stay close to trees or woodland edges in case they need to get to cover to hide from predators. They will hop along on bare ground or over very short vegetation looking for invertebrates, ants being their favored prey.
Using their pointed beak they probe into the soil or anthill and extend their long tongue more than two inches beyond the bill tip, it is coated in sticky saliva to grasp the ants and bring them back into their mouth. It is thought that this tongue is the longest of any North American bird. When not using the tongue it wraps back around the rear of the skull.
They will also take any other insects they can find including beetles, termites, caterpillars, and butterflies, they have even been seeing aerial flycatching. On farmland, they will break apart dried cow pats to look for dung beetle larvae. In fall and winter when invertebrate availability is reduced they will forage for fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts, and are more likely to visit garden bird feeders at this time.
Northern Flicker Breeding and Nesting
Breeding season for Northern Flickers starts in mid-April, even for young birds that hatched out only the previous year. To attract a mate and define their territory, males and females perform an elaborate display known as the ‘Wicka Dance’, named for the sounds the birds make during the process. Two birds of the same sex, usually males but females will also dance, and face each other on a horizontal branch, often with a bird of the opposite sex (the mate or potential mate) watching.
The two dancers point their bills slightly upwards and draw patterns, swaying their heads and bodies as they do so, sometimes flicking and spreading their wings and tail. This is all accompanied by loud and synchronized calls, interspersed with periods of silence and stillness, and may go on for several minutes, or sometimes over an hour!
This allows two opponents to size each other up, gauging each other’s stamina and determination without the need for physical contact, and a bird realizing it is the weaker individual will fly away, leaving the victor with its mate or territory. This allows most disputes to be resolved without the risk of injury after a fight. Sometimes the two will appear evenly matched and this can result in an altercation, using bills and feet in an undignified scrap, often ending up rolling around on the ground.
Eventually, the loser will fly away and look for other options. Like the other woodpeckers, they will also drum to broadcast their territory, hammering their bills against a tree trunk. Some have even learned that drumming against metal creates a louder sound, thus carrying their display further, so they might use the side of a house or other man-made infrastructure.
With a pair bond and territory established, the nest site can be chosen and a cavity excavated, often in the soft wood of a dead or decaying tree, this usually takes ten to fourteen days of work by both male and female. Because Flickers forage mostly on the ground rather than by constantly pecking at trees like other woodpeckers, they don’t have such strong bills. This can limit their options for nest excavation so they will also take over old cavities previously used by other woodpeckers.
Six to eight eggs are laid, and incubated by both sexes for twelve days. The chicks are tiny, bald, helpless, and blind after hatching and will be brooded by the adults for the first two weeks of life. Both adults will bring food to the chicks, usually ants and ant larvae, which they will regurgitate from the crop.
After about twenty-five days the chicks will fledge the nest cavity, receiving food from the parents for another two weeks before gaining independence. If there is another time left in the breeding season, some pairs may even raise a second brood. This is more regular in southern birds.
Northern Flicker Population
Northern Flickers have a broad range across North America and use a variety of wooded habitats. This spread across the continent has allowed their population to reach a healthy ten million individuals, as estimated by the Breeding Bird Survey.
The population appears to be undergoing a slow but steady long-term decline in the USA and Canada, it is thought this decline could come from a lack of nesting sites due to a reduced abundance of suitable old trees, and competition with other hole-nesting birds including introduced species like European Starlings.
Are Northern Flickers Endangered?
Northern Flickers are not endangered and are classified as ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN thanks to their large range, and large population. The slow population decline is currently not dramatic enough to warrant a more serious classification.
Northern Flicker Predators
Northern Flickers are regularly predated, both as adults and during the nesting stage. The biggest threat to adults comes from birds of prey, particularly hawks with Cooper’s Hawk probably being the most frequent predator. The nest cavity is particularly vulnerable and will be targeted by a wide range of animals looking for eggs and chicks.
Up to twenty percent of nests could be raided each year, with Squirrels and other mammals including Weasels and Black Bears being the most frequent predators, along with snakes and crows.
Northern Flicker Lifespan
The oldest known Northern Flicker reached nine years and two months of age, though as a result of heavy predation many will only live for two to three years.
Woodpeckers are a familiar bird family to all of us bird lovers, but even the birds we know and see on a regular basis can still surprise us with their subtleties. Northern Flickers break the mould and add a new dimension to the woodpeckers, and to see them on your local patch or in your yard can be areal highlight of a days birding.
Large, noisy, and bold, these birds don’t hide away, which provides us with great opportunities to observe their unusual feeding and courtship behaviour, I can’t think of many more entertaining sights to stumble across on a birding walk in the woods.
Answer: Northern Flickers are indeed a member of the woodpecker family. They share a lot of common traits of the woodpeckers including the ability to climb vertically up tree trunks with their strong feet, and the long powerful bill which can be used both to find food and to create a drumming display. They differ from most other woodpeckers with their preferred foraging technique of searching on the ground and probing into soil and anthills.
Answer: The name flicker refers to the call of the bird, a loud wick-wick-wick, kikiki, or flick-flick-flick. They have been called by many other names attempting to describe the call including harry-wicket, wick-up. Another old name is Yellowhammer, in Alabama where it is the state bird. This name derives from the bright yellow shafts and undersides of the flight feathers. Don’t confuse them with the original Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, a European bunting species.
Answer: There is no such bird as a Southern Flicker. There are though five other species of Flicker that are found further south, as far down as southern South America:
• Gilded Flicker C.chrysoides of the southwest USA and northwest Mexico
• Fernandina’s Flicker C.fernandinae of Cuba
• Chilean Flicker C.pitius of Chile and southwest Argentina
• Andean Flicker C.rupicola in the Andes Mountains, from Peru south to northwest Argentina
• Campo Flicker C.campestris of eastern South America
There are another six species in the colaptes genus, all in Central and South America but these are considered woodpeckers rather than flickers.
Answer: Northern Flickers are less likely to utilize bird feeders than other woodpecker species, but they will do it occasionally, especially in winter. Peanuts, seeds, suet, and fruit are the most likely to be taken. Otherwise, a yard or garden hosting a variety of native plant species will be a great home to the invertebrates that Flickers most like to feed on, and a great way to lure them, along with other local species. If you do put out bird feeders, remember to clean them regularly to reduce the spread of avian diseases.
- Sibley, D.A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- Fisher, R. J. and K. L. Wiebe. (2006b). Effects of sex and age on survival of Northern Flickers: A six-year field study. Condor 108 (1):193-200.
- Rosenberg, K. V., J. A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R. P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J. D. Alexander, C. J. Beardmore, P. J. Blancher, R. E. Bogart, G. S. Butcher, A. F. Camfield, A. Couturier, D. W. Demarest, W. E. Easton, J. J. Giocomo, R. H. Keller, A. E. Mini, A. O. Panjabi, D. N. Pashley, T. D. Rich, J. M. Ruth, H. Stabins, J. Stanton, and T. Will (2016). Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.
- Wiebe, K. L. and W. S. Moore (2020). Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
- BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Colaptes auratus. Downloaded on 03/10/2022
- Woodpeckers: An Identification Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World by Hans Winkler, David A. Christie & David Nurney. Houghton Mifflin (1995), ISBN 978-0-395-72043-1
- Northern Flicker
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