Northern Flicker

Male Northern Flicker © TGrey

Hikers strolling through the Park may be surprised by a woodpecker flushing from the ground before them. As the Northern Flicker beats a hasty retreat, it reveals an unmistakable white rump and red wing linings. The Northern Flicker’s name comes from this rump patch and the bright color of wing and tail linings, flickering. It is the least arboreal of our woodpeckers, and it spends more time feeding on the ground than other woodpeckers. Often, it is only when the Northern Flicker is around its nest cavity in a tree that it truly behaves like other woodpeckers; clinging, rattling, and drumming.

The Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus, is a complex species, having 4 subspecies; Yellow-shafted Flicker, Red-shafted Flicker, Guatemalan Flicker, and the Cuban Flicker. The first three are found in North America. The Yellow-shafted with its yellow under wings and black mustache is found in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The Red-shafted with its deep salmon under wing is found in the west. The remainder of this article will be about the Red-shafted species, as this is the one we see in the Park during the fall and winter months.

A large brown woodpecker, 13 in. long with a 20-inch wingspan. Males and females are the same size. Overall a grayish brown with irregular transverse dark-brown bars above which makes the bird cryptic when seen on the ground. They have a black crescent mark on the upper breast. The underside of their flight feathers are bright salmon. The white rump patch is conspicuous in flight. They have a gray head with a brown crown and nape, and the male has a red mustache stripe. Their bill is large, long, and chisel-shaped.

Food Habits
The flicker feeds primarily on the ground, for ants and other insects by probing and hammering in the soil with its powerful bill. Its tongue is an amazing tool. When extended it is 4 times the bill length. Beginning with a cartilage sheath anchored to the right nostril, it splits into two “horns” that run over the top of the head and then into the mouth through the base of the skull, the two sheaths meeting and connecting at the tongue bone. The accordion-like extension of these horns is what gives the tongue its impressive length. The whole assembly is up to 5 inches long. The tongue’s tip has barbs that the bird can spear insects with, as well as sticky saliva to hold insects.

Foraging © TGrey

The flicker has a complex array of vocal and nonvocal sounds, all emitted in specific contexts, and all produced by both sexes. The vocalization most often heard in the Park (klee-yer) serves as a “signatures” call, enabling individual birds to recognize each other. Two nonvocal sounds are produced; “drumming” and “tapping”.

Flicker drumming sounds like a miniature pneumatic drill. Drumming is produced by rapidly and sharply beating the tip of the bill on a resonating object, usually a dead tree limb or branch. Flickers drum in conjunction with territorial defense. They make a variety of tapping sounds, most of which are incidental to nest excavation. Tapping, a slower, more rhythmic sound than drumming, is sometimes ritualistic, occurring only at the nest site, wherein, one member of the nesting pair taps upon the return to the nest site of the second member.

Flickers hop slowly for short distances on the ground when foraging, seldom walking or running. When foraging in trees they hop on tree branches, limbs, and vertical trunks, moving up, down, or laterally. Their flight has an undulating trace, that is typical of woodpeckers. Bursts of wing-flapping alternates with nonflapping phases during which wings are folded against the body.

Flickers usually excavate nest cavities in dead or diseased tree trunks and large branches of soft wood trees. Both sexes participate in cavity excavation, but the male plays a dominant role. They “chisel” away small chips of wood with their bill. Periods of “chiseling” are interspersed with shorter periods of tossing chips from the cavity opening. It takes 12 to 15 days to complete the excavation. The cavity curves quickly downward beyond the entrance, and the diameter rapidly expands beyond the entry hole. The entrance is just large enough to accommodate entry and exit of adults, and the interior is large enough for adults to turn around.

That the flicker has more than 130 nicknames—hairy-wicket, heigh-ho, and yawker bird among them—indicates how thoroughly it has captured the popular imagination. It’s not just the almost surreal vividness of their face markings, or the surprise flash of breathtaking color; they are gregarious, enthusiastic drama queens. From the rapid wick-wick-wick call announcing their arrival, to the drumming on resonant wood to both challenge and attract other flickers, and their comical courting rituals, they have long entertained watchers in the woods.

Moore, W.S. 1995. The Birds of North America. No 166.

Learn More…
Northern Flicker at All about Birds. This guide has recordings of the sounds described above.

By Lee Franks. This article was originally published in the Edgewood Explorer, March 2004.