Northern Flicker is actually the name for several subspecies of medium sized woodpeckers which include the Yellow-shafted Flicker, Red-shafted Flicker, Gilded Flicker, Guatemalan Flicker, and the Cuban Flicker.
They are beautiful birds with striking markings. The males and females are grayish brown with horizontal barring across the back and wings. The tail is white with brownish black bars and solid black tips while the breast is light brown to off-white and has blackish brown spots. The best way to spot the males is to look for a stripe that may be bright red or black that starts at the beak and looks like a mustache down the side of the neck.
Northern Flickers live all across the North American continent as well as Central America and in Cuba. If you live west of the Rocky Mountains, you’ll see the Red-Shafted, east of the Rocky Mountains, you’ll find the Yellow-Shafted, and if you live in the Southwest, you’ll see the Gilded.
Although Northern Flickers have adapted well to living around humans, making their homes in urban areas, the suburbs, the edge of forests, parks, meadows and farms, they’ve struggled over the past 20 years. Sadly, the population is declining because of intense competition with European Starlings for nest sites combined with the removal of prime nesting trees every time land for a new subdivision or commercial center is cleared.
Northern Flickers tend to be picky nesters preferring to nest and excavate in a tree of their choosing, but when a good tree is not available they will use posts and birdhouses, or even re-use and repair damaged and abandoned nests.
Northern Flickers are the most terrestrial of all North American woodpeckers and can usually be found on the ground hopping along looking for ants. These birds love to eat ants. They eat more ants than any other bird species in North America with ants alone making up 45% of their diet. The other 55% is comprised of flies, butterflies, moths, beetles and snails with some fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts thrown in to round things out. Occasionally, they will visit a feeder, but that is not very common.
Northern Flickers return to their breeding ground in March and April. A few weeks after returning, courtships begin. By late April to early May, pairs have bonded and begin to breed. They are monogamous for life, but if a bird loses its mate due to death or disappearance, it will find a replacement.
Both the male and female aggressively defend a territory, which consists of the prospective nest site and its immediate surroundings. Vocalizations and “drumming” are used to define and defend territory boundaries. This bird’s call is a sustained laugh, “ki ki ki ki “and is easy to identify when heard. Since the drumming is about territory defense, they like it to be as loud as possible. That’s why woodpeckers sometimes drum on metal objects. One Northern Flicker in Wyoming could be heard drumming on an abandoned tractor a half-mile away. Once incubation begins, however, the pair spends less time defending their territory and will even allow other pairs to move into the vicinity and nest nearby.
Northern Flickers are adaptable, beautiful birds with an upbeat call and a big appetite for ants. If you see one or have photos of one, please share them on the Cole’s Wild Bird Products Facebook page.