By Tom Dennis
Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus
We have received several messages lately with pictures of this beautiful bird, asking for assistance with identification. The pictures invariably show a Northern Flicker on the ground, not the expected place to find a woodpecker. This colorful species, known for many years as the Yellow-shafted Flicker is indeed an anomaly in the woodpecker family. Read on to discover why this bird is rather peculiar as well as beautiful.
Northern Flickers inhabit most of North America and there are eight existing and one extinct subspecies. The subspecies in Eastern North America is the Eastern Yellow-shafted Flicker and this historic name is descriptive of the yellow feather shafts under the tail and underwings. They have a gray cap, buff face, and a red bar on the back of the head. They also have a black-barred brown back, black crescent on the breast, black spotted buff breast, and a white rump that is visible during flight. Males sport a black “mustache” stripe on both sides of the long bill. The other subspecies show various color patterns with the Western Red-shafted Flicker found in Western North America having red feather shafts under the tail and underwings. They range in size from 11 to 14 inches in length with a wingspan of 17 to 21 inches and weigh in at about five ounces. All of the subspecies interbreed where the ranges overlap, therefore the scientific classification protocol considers them the same species.
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Like most woodpeckers they are cavity nesters, typically excavating nests in dead trees but also using utility poles and bird houses. Flickers are the only woodpeckers to forage mainly on the ground. Their diet includes fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts but their primary food is insects. They are one of few bird species to eat ants which can make up 45% of their diet. Most birds avoid ants because their bodies contain formic acid but flickers aren’t bothered by this “spicy” diet. They also exhibit a behavior known as “anting” where they use the formic acid from the ants to assist in preening as it helps keep them free of parasites.
Northern Flickers are known for making big noises. They attract mates and declare their territory by drumming on trees or other objects. Unfortunately for some people they often choose metal chimney covers. We removed a metal flagpole from our yard that they were fond of hammering on in the early, summer morning hours. They also make a drawn-out “ki ki ki ki” laugh that differs from that of the Pileated Woodpecker in pitch and length and a call-note that sounds like a loud “kleeer”.
This woodpecker species is very beneficial to mankind not just in controlling many species of ants. They are also one of the main predators of the European corn borer, a moth that costs the agricultural industry more than one billion dollars annually in crop loss and control efforts. This is your reminder to stop using pesticides and let the creation work naturally to control pest populations and make the world a safer place for birds and people.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.