Bird of the Month - Fun Facts About the Northern Flicker
Male Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker - Note the yellow "shafts" (feathers) under the tail feathers.
- Look for Northern Flickers in woodlands, forest edges, and open fields with scattered trees, as well as city parks and suburbs. In the western mountains they occur in most forest types, including burned forests, all the way up to treeline. You can also find them in wet areas such as streamside woods, flooded swamps, and marsh edges.
- Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers are the most common in Central Alberta. Red-shafted Flickers are sometimes seen in our area as well, and there are even occasional cross-bred flickers that have both red and yellow "shafts."
- Northern Flickers eat mainly insects, especially ants and beetles that they gather from the ground. They also eat fruits and seeds, especially in winter. Flickers often go after ants underground (where the nutritious larvae live), hammering at the soil the way other woodpeckers drill into wood. They’ve been seen breaking into cow patties to eat insects living within. Their tongues can dart out 2 inches beyond the end of the bill to snare prey. Other invertebrates eaten include flies, butterflies, moths, and snails. Flickers also eat berries and seeds, especially in winter, including poison oak and ivy, dogwood, sumac, wild cherry and grape, bayberries, hackberries, and elderberries, and sunflower and thistle seeds.
- Northern Flickers usually excavate nest holes in dead or diseased tree trunks or large branches. In northern North America look for nests in trembling aspens, which are susceptible to a heartrot that makes for easy excavation. Unlike many woodpeckers, flickers often reuse cavities that they or another species excavated in a previous year. Nests are generally placed 6-15 feet off the ground, but on rare occasions can be over 100 feet high. Northern Flickers have been known to nest in old burrows of Belted Kingfishers or Bank Swallows.
- Both sexes help with nest excavation. The entrance hole is about 3 inches in diameter, and the cavity is 13-16 inches deep. The cavity widens at bottom to make room for eggs and the incubating adult. Inside, the cavity is bare except for a bed of wood chips for the eggs and chicks to rest on. Once nestlings are about 17 days old, they begin clinging to the cavity wall rather than lying on the floor.
- Northern Flickers don’t act like typical woodpeckers. They mainly forage on the ground, sometimes among sparrows and blackbirds and we have seen them travelling and feeding with Robins.
- When flushed, flickers often perch erect on thin horizontal branches rather than hitching up or around a tree trunk. Flickers do fly Iike most woodpeckers do, rising and falling smoothly as they intersperse periods of flapping with gliding.
- Early in spring and summer, rivals may face off in a display sometimes called a “fencing duel,” while a prospective mate looks on. Two birds face each other on a branch, bills pointed upward, and bob their heads in time while drawing a loop or figure-eight pattern in the air, often giving rhythmic wicka calls at the same time.
- Northern Flickers are widespread and common, but numbers decreased by almost 1.5% per year between 1966 and 2012, resulting in a cumulative decline of 49%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9 million with 78% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 42% in Canada, and 8% in Mexico. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. They are not listed on the 2014 State of the Birds Report.