Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker - Red-Shafted Male
Northern Flicker - Red-Shafted Male. Joan Gellatly

The northern flicker is the most widespread of the North American woodpeckers, and its two major subspecies – the red-shafted and the yellow-shafted – were formerly considered separate species until they were merged in the 1980s.

Common Name:

Northern Flicker, Yellow-Shafted Flicker, Red-Shafted Flicker, Western Flicker, Eastern Flicker, Golden-Winged Woodpecker, Yellowhammer

Scientific Name:

Colaptes auratus

Scientific Family:

Picidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Long, dark, very slightly decurved
  • Size: 13-14 inches long with 20-inch wingspan, broad wings
  • Colors: Gray, tan, black, buff, white, yellow, red, salmon
  • Markings: Dimorphic species with geographic plumage variations. Males have a tan and gray head, with red-shafted birds having a red malar stripe and yellow-shafted birds having a black malar stripe and a red nape patch. The back and wings are tan with black barring or scallops, and the white rump is easily visible in flight. The uppertail coverts are white with black spotting, and the stiff, two-pronged tail is black above with either red or yellow below. Underparts are buff-white with black spots and a prominent wedge-shaped black patch on the breast. In flight, the red-shafted subspecies shows salmon-colored underwings, while the yellow-shafted subspecies shows bright yellow. Females have similar markings to males but lack the malar stripes. Juvenile birds are similar to adults, but juvenile males have orange malar stripes.

    Foods:

    Insects, fruits, seeds (See: Insectivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    The northern flicker has a widespread range and can be found in open deciduous forests, woodland edges, marshes and suburban parks, gardens and backyards. These birds are found year-round in most of the continental United States, central Mexico and coastal British Columbia, but they are missing from southwestern Texas and Arizona, the northern area of the Midwest and the extreme northeast.

    In summer, this woodpecker's breeding range extends further north to include most of Canada and Alaska except the highest tundra regions, and in winter they are found deeper into the southwestern United States.

    The yellow-shafted subspecies is more common in the eastern and central portions of the range, as well as all of the Canadian range. The red-shafted subspecies is most common in the western part of the range and north through British Columbia. On very rare occasions, northern flickers have been recorded as vagrant birds in northern Europe.

    Vocalizations:

    These are vocal birds with a variety of calls. The piercing “kyeeer” call is reminiscent of hawks but has a shorter duration. A loud, strong, even “wik-wik-wik-wik” call is also common. When drumming, these woodpeckers have an even, rapid tempo that lasts 1-2 seconds.

    Behavior:

    These woodpeckers, unlike most woodpecker species, prefer to forage on the ground for ants and beetles, and their antacid saliva helps defeat ants' acid defenses. Northern flickers will hop on the ground or cling to low stumps or at the base of trees, and when perched, they are often seen in a posture more similar to passerines than woodpeckers, though they can cling vertically as well.

    During courtship, they are active and agile, and their undulating flight with rapid wing flaps and short glides is distinctive because it highlights their bold underwing colors.

    Reproduction:

    These are monogamous birds and both parents work to excavate a suitable nesting cavity or arrange the nest with minimal material, occasionally using bird houses or taking over abandoned holes of belted kingfishers or bank swallows. Each brood contains 3-12 oval-shaped, plain white eggs, and a pair of northern flickers will lay 1-2 broods per year, with the second brood most common in southern populations.

    Both parents will incubate the eggs for 12-15 days, and both will care for the altricial young for an additional 25-28 days after hatching.

    In areas where the two subspecies' ranges overlap, hybridization is regularly recorded.

    Northern flickers will also hybridize with gilded flickers in the southwestern United States.

    Attracting Northern Flickers:

    In the appropriate habitat, northern flickers will happily visit backyards that avoid pesticide and insecticide use so there are more ants and beetles available for food. These woodpeckers will also occasionally use large bird houses, and they will visit bird baths. Leaving dead trees and stumps intact will provide both foraging and nesting sites. These birds will readily visit bird feeders where suet, nuts and black oil sunflower seeds are available.

    Conservation:

    While the northern flicker is not considered threatened or endangered, its populations have been steadily declining. A major cause of this decrease is believed to be competition from European starlings for the best nesting sites, and the woodpeckers often lose to the more aggressive invasive birds. Despite this decline, however, the northern flicker's widespread range ensures its continued survival.

    Similar Birds:

    • Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides)
    • Campo Flicker (Colaptes campestris)
    • Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

    Photo – Northern Flicker – Red-Shafted Male © Joan Gellatly
    Photo – Northern Flicker – Yellow-Shafted Female © New Jersey Birds