Weekly Notes ~ Northern Flicker

Male Northern Flicker

In Maine, the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is often called the Yellow-Shafted Flicker, however in the 19th century, it was commonly known as the Golden-winged Woodpecker.  In fact early field guides list a number of names that each reflect a characteristic of this member of the woodpecker (Picidae) family.

Like characteristics to other woodpeckers are the Flickers zygodactyl feet, meaning two toes point forward and two backward, a stiff spiny tail used as a brace when perched on a tree trunk and its flight, an undulating wing-flap and swoop as if riding an invisible wave through the air.

The wing lining and the shafts of the wing and tail feathers are a golden yellow and show as such when viewing the bird from below when it is in flight.  However, more often it is the white rump that can been seen from above as the bird flies, that gives away its identity.

Both the male and female birds are a soft golden brown with a pattern of black bars across the back.  The breast is light and heavily speckled with large black spots and a black crescent worn across the breast.

Their heads are graphite above with a red patch that forms a ‘V’ on the back.  Only the males have a black mustache that extends across the soft brown cheek.  Their slender curved bills are dark gray and are about the same length as the head.  Overall this is a large woodpecker, measuring 12-14 inches including the tail.

We most often see Flickers in the spring and fall when they visit neighborhood lawns, roadsides and parks in search of ants and other grubs.  Unlike most woodpeckers, the Flicker prefers ants.  They will also eat seeds and nuts such as this fellow found at a bird feeder in Kittery.

The next time you have an opportunity to observe an ant hill, look for excavation holes where a Flicker ‘worked’ a hill in search of a feed of ants.  Flickers usually hop along the ground but they also walk and the soft gravel of an ant hill may reveal tracks of this bird.  You may also find scat, large bird droppings that are pellet shaped and full of…. ants.

On many a fall day I have seen large numbers of Flickers along the woods roads of Northern Maine.  Most likely these birds are moving south from Canada and like other migrant birds, they only go as far as they need to in order to find suitable habitat for the winter.  The early field guides all mention the Flicker as a year-round resident in New England and modern field guides suggest that the southern coastal areas of Maine are favorable for their survival.

Although most often observed close to the ground, Flickers nest in tree cavities and during spring courtship may find a metal roof to hammer out a tune to attract a mate.  The early field guides mention that the Flicker, like the common farm chicken, will continue to lay eggs each day that robbers such as the blue-jay or crow steal an egg for breakfast.  After hatching, both the male and female tend to the young by feeding them regurgitated ants and other insects.

My 1916 edition of Bird Neighbors by Neltje Blanchan, lists 36 aliases for the Flicker.  Some of which are the Clape, Pigeon Woodpecker, Yellowhammer, High-Holder, Yucker, Yarup, Wake-up and lastly the Yellow-Shafted Woodpecker.  Ms Wright in Birdcraft mentions their most common voice as a ‘wick-wick-wick-wick’ although others point out that the Flicker has different voices for different seasons.


Northern Flicker