Several birders of my acquaintance have a particular love for warblers. These birds often have stunning plumage, and it changes in many species between breeding and non-breeding seasons. I enjoy seeing the warblers, too, but it’s the woodpeckers that tend to keep me watching for longer periods when they appear. And I’m lucky that all the local species visit my yard at least occasionally, like the Northern flicker that startled a brown thrasher one year.
Unlike warblers, the woodpeckers’ plumage doesn’t often evoke words of wonder and appreciation. They don’t change from breeding to non-breeding plumage and some species even look almost identical. But I find them fascinating; my favorite (although I really like them all) is that stunning and fabulous flicker.
There are two major kinds of flickers in the USA. In the West, the main subspecies has reddish feathers in flight and is called red-shafted. In the East, we have yellow-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus auratus). When these birds are simply perched, you mostly just see their muted tan coloring with dark spots on the breast.
From the back, you can see a red heart-shaped spot on their neck.
When they fly away, you may also see a white patch on their back near the base of the tail.
The males have a thick black “mustache” extending from the beak.
The females lack this feature.
In reviewing the photos I’ve taken of them, it appears that I see the males more frequently than the females. The males also seem less reluctant to come out into the open when I’m observing them. This is anecdotal, of course, but I do wonder if the females are generally shyer.
It’s when they take off in flight with wings spread or when they flutter their wings while balancing on branches that you get to see their marvelous yellow feathers.
The flickers distinguish themselves as the woodpecker species that very often seeks its food on the ground. Their preferred meals comprise insects, although in winter they also forage for fruit and seeds.
They stick their long bills deep into the ground when looking for a favored food — ants. Many articles online say that one flicker’s stomach was found to contain more than 5,000 ants but I couldn’t find the original study reporting that finding anywhere.
Barbs on the flickers’ lengthy tongues help them catch the ants and other insects, such as flies, butterflies, and moths.
These birds have an elongated hyoid bone that helps support their tongue, which can extend up to 2 inches (5 cm) beyond their bill. This also comes in handy when they are probing snags and fallen logs for meals.
Northern flickers also have large salivary glands that re-coat their tongues with a sticky substance each time they stick them out — an extra aide in catching those ants!
When you see flickers in trees around springtime, they are often looking for nesting spots. They may choose trees with softer wood in which to excavate holes or they may use nesting cavities created by other birds.
A couple years ago, I discovered flickers following around pileated woodpeckers as they moved from tree to tree to peck holes.
I wasn’t quite sure why the flickers were pursuing their larger cousins, but now I think they were checking out holes that the larger woodpeckers had made for nests. This seems to be a recurring behavior as this year I saw flickers (in the same natural area) starting the same behavior. The pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to mind too much.
In another natural area, the flickers have used cavities made by red-headed woodpeckers for their nests. The two species seem fine with brooding their young in the same snag at the same time.
The flickers can live up to 8-9 years at least and likely migrate back to the same areas each nesting season.
While the overall numbers of Northern flickers are decreasing, they are not considered a threatened species.
They adapt well to living around human settlements but can be threatened by fewer available nest sites due to urban development, snag removals, and competition for nest holes, as well as heat waves that affect nestlings and wildfires that destroy their habitats.
I hope these beauties stay around my living space for a long time to come!