Despite being classified as a woodpecker, don’t be surprised if you startle a northern flicker up from the ground on your next hike! These striking auburn birds use their specialized beaks to dig up dirt and a 2-inch long tongue, which wraps around the flicker’s skull when retracted, to extract insects and larvae. These birds will also eat fruit and seeds, especially over winter when ants in particular become harder to find. In the spring, northern flickers can be heard drumming on tin flues, siding, gutters, and other materials to attract mates.
Both males and females help to excavate dead or diseased trees for nests, which will be lined with little more than a thin layer of woodchips for a clutch of 5-8 eggs. Northern flickers are quite happy in nest boxes and in reusing tree cavities created by other animals. Nestlings will tend to cling to the wall of their nest between the second to third week after hatching.
These hardy birds are brown in colour with dark spots and a black collar. The nape of their neck is highlighted with a deep red crescent. In flight, bright feathers on the underside of the northern flicker can be seen. These feathers are orange in the red-shafted flicker subspecies of western North America and yellow in the yellow-shafted flicker that dominate further east and north.
Northern flickers cover a large range across most of North America and can be found in suburbs, marches, forest edges of the prairie foothills, and all the way up to the treeline of the Rockies. Some northern flickers remain in the United States and coastal regions of Canada year-round while others will migrate further, as far north as Alaska for breeding and into parts of Central America to overwinter. Like most woodpeckers, northern flickers fly in an undulating motion featuring a few quick flaps followed by glides with tucked wings.
Although northern flickers are currently listed as a low concern species, habitat loss, insecticides, and other urban hazards can threaten these woodpeckers. Additionally, despite having adaptations, including a reinforced skull and specialized brain cushioning that allow them to withstand the sustained force of pecking, northern flickers and other woodpeckers are still vulnerable to window strikes.
If you would like to support the care of these and other native birds brought to AIWC for rehabilitation and release, donate to our Wish List, get organized with a 2018 Calendar, or send your holiday greetings on an AIWC Christmas Card.
By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer