NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)
DESCRIPTION: The Northern Flicker is more colorful than other woodpeckers. It has a grey cap and a beige face, and mottled beige undersides with striped wings. The under part of the tail and the wings in the eastern subspecies is yellow, and red in the western subspecies. There is a large black crescent at the base of the throat. The male has a black patch on each side of the bill, and a red patch at the back of the head. The rump is white. The bird is around 30 cm (12 inches long).
VOICE: https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Colaptes-auratus – One of the main calls of the northern flicker is similar to a burst of laughter.
NAME: The English name of this woodpecker would originate from Anglo-saxon ‘flicerian’, a ‘fluttering of birds’ (Choate). It then evolved over the centuries to reach its modern form. The northern flicker also has dozens of other English names. The Latin genus name ‘Colaptes’ is from Greek and means ‘to peck’. As for the Latin species name ‘auratus’, it means ‘golden’, in reference to the bird’s plumage.
HABITAT: Wooded areas.
DIET: The northern flicker is a woodpecker with a different way of searching for food than its other counterparts. Whereas most woodpeckers forage on trees, this one forages mainly on the ground, particularly for ants.
NESTING: The nest is excavated in a tree by both parents. Around six white eggs are laid, which are incubated by both parents. The chicks are also fed by both parents.
Northern flickers are known to use man-made structures to build their nest if given the opportunity. Since they are a legally protected species this can cause problems : http://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/protected-bird-nests-in-attic-owner-told-he-cant-do-anything-about-it.
DISTRIBUTION: The breeding range of the northern flicker covers Canada up to the tree line and most of the USA. In the latter country it is mostly a year-round resident. Migration only areas are located along the USA-Mexico border.
ON PEI: The northern flicker breeds on Prince Edward Island and is common. In the winter it is rarely seen because of the snow covering its main source of food. However it will be attracted to bird feeders. (See photo and video below of an individual feeding on a suet log during the infamous February blizzard of Feb.15-16, 2015, that brought almost one meter of snow and hurricane force winds.)
CONSERVATION: Although this woodpecker is still widespread, its population has steadily decreased over the last few decades (but not in the Canadian Maritimes). In spite of this trend the species is still considered as ‘least concern’. One possible explanation for the decline would be displacement by European Starlings taking over their nests.
NOTES: The tongue of the northern flicker can extend out up to two inches (5 cm) beyond their bill, which is very useful for them to reach ants in the ground. Not only do these birds eat ants, but they also use the formic acid from these insects to preen themselves as a protection from parasites.
As with other woodpeckers, the northern flicker has two forward and two backward toes, which allows better grip when climbing vertically on tree trunks. In addition, their tail feathers have stiff ends to provide more support.
There are several subspecies of the northern flicker. Two main ones are the ‘Yellow-shafter Flicker’ in the east, and the ‘Red-shafter Flicker’ out west. To complicate things further, they interbreed where their territories overlap.
Drumming: A behavior that is unique to the woodpeckers including this one, is their drumming on metal surfaces (preferably) for territorial and courtship purposes, and the louder the better. The drumming can then be heard from a good distance. Woodpeckers will not shy away from drumming on buildings, on hollow metal parts, for example, that brings them a good loud sound. For more information on drumming, you can click here.
SIMILAR SPECIES: Red-bellied Woodpecker
REFERENCES: https://www.mba-aom.ca/jsp/toc.jsp (Maritimes Breeding Bird Atlas)
http://www.nhptv.org/natureworks/flicker.htm (New Hampshire PBS)
https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/northern-flicker (Missouri Department of Conservation)
Here’s a close up of a northern flicker venturing on a deck:
Below is a video of a northern flicker ‘cleaning up’ the spaces between the concrete slabs of a garden path, by gobbling up the small brown ants below with its long tongue. It seems oblivious to the two mourning doves foraging in that area.
The next video below shows a northern flicker pecking at a suet log during the infamous blizzard of February 15-16, 2015, that produced 86 cm of snow and hurricane-force winds. Yet northern flickers are ‘supposed’ to migrate (at least partially) for the winter.
Finally, here are videos of a male (this is the only way to distinguish the sexes, by the behavior) claiming territory and/or attracting a mate: