Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus

Northern Flicker
Lee Hunter/Flickr/Used With Permission

The northern flicker is the most widespread North American woodpecker, and one of the most distinctive with its bold markings. Its two major subspecies – the red-shafted and the yellow-shafted – were formerly separate species until they were merged in the 1980s. These woodpeckers are also well known as the state bird of Alabama.

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 and Identification

Northern flickers are easy to identify by their field marks and bold colors, though the eastern flicker (yellow-shafted) and western flicker (red-shafted) have some distinct differences. Once birders learn the major field marks, however, they can confidently identify these woodpeckers with just a glance.

  • 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: 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, red-shafted flickers show salmon-colored underwings, while yellow-shafted birds show 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, Diet and Foraging

    Like all woodpeckers, northern flickers vary their diet seasonally depending on what foods are available in their range. They are primarily insectivorous, but also eat different fruits, seeds and nuts depending on season and availability.

    Habitat and Migration

    The northern flicker is 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 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 in 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 flicker 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 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 familiar 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 excavate a suitable nesting cavity or arrange the nest with minimal material. Northern flickers will occasionally use bird houses or take 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 incubate the eggs for 12-15 days, and both will care for the chicks 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 yards 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 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 in recent decades. 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)