By Clay Christensen

I was walking my pup, Rocky, through the neighborhood the other day when he made a necessary stop. While he was busy, I looked around and saw a beautiful yellow feather on the ground.

The feather was about six or seven inches long and its shaft was brilliant yellow. I identified it as from a yellow-shafted flicker. I left it on the ground for someone else to discover, picked up after Rocky and headed across the street.

Just then, my friend, Quentin, came running out of his house toward us waving a feather in his hand. It was yellow, about three to four inches long.

“Yellow-shafted flicker!” I said.

“I knew you’d know!” he replied.

I told him there was another feather just over by those birch trees. He went and searched and returned holding one feather in each hand. He was pretty excited.

The yellow-shafted flicker is one of two subspecies of the northern flicker. It’s the version we see, found east of the Rocky Mountains. The other subspecies, the red-shafted flicker, is found west of the Rockies. There’s an overlapping area between the two ranges.

Pete Dunne, a famous bird writer, notes that at some point in the calendar year, flickers are found virtually everywhere in North America.

The northern flicker is a ground foraging woodpecker (they really like ants!), the third largest woodpecker in North America after the ivory-billed woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker. It’s 11- to 12-inches long with a wingspan of 12 to 14 inches. Dunne says the northern flicker “confounds nonbirders by foraging on suburban lawns and having the temerity not to be a robin.”

The northern flicker has lots of black barring above and spotting below. In addition, it has a black bib across the chest that always reminds me of a collegiate letter sweater.

The subspecies gets its yellow-­shafted name from the color of the feather shafts, or remiges, in the wings and tail. That color comes from carotenoids like lutein in their food, perhaps modified by the metabolic process. Flickers in captivity need carrots and paprika to get their color.

Yellow-shafted flickers can have anomalous red shafts from eating berries of the non-native bush honey­suckle (Lonerica) which have a chemical that interferes with the production of lutein.

Both male and female yellow-­shafted flickers have a bright red nuchal patch on the nape, but only the male has a black mustache or malar (cheek) stripe. That is the only coloration that distinguishes the sexes. They both show a white rump patch in flight.

Flickers migrating, feeding habits

Flickers’ spring migration is from late March through May. Fall migration is from September to November. Some birds stay around all winter especially if there’s access to feeders. For example, the Christmas Bird Count in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, has reported flickers since 1984, despite temperatures of 40 below! Those are some hardy birds!

Flickers feed extensively on the ground. On rangeland, they’ve been known to break apart dried cow dung to find colonies of ants and beetles. Their tongue can stick out over 1-1/2 inches beyond the bill tip. They have a large crop where they store food to bring back to their hatchlings.

Flickers nest in cavities. They’re known as keystone excavators and have an influence on secondary cavity nesters like chickadees, tree swallows, house wrens, nuthatches and brown creepers. These cavities are sometimes usurped by starlings, squirrels, screech owls and kestrels.

The female flicker lays a clutch of five to eight eggs, about 1.1 inches long. The eggs are white, like most woodpecker eggs, because they don’t need camouflage markings when they’re at the bottom of a dark cavity.

In “Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers,” A.C. Bent reports, “The pellucid color of the newly hatched flicker resembles that of freshly sun-burned human skin, but so translucent that immediately after a feeding one can see the line of ants that stretch down the bird’s throat and remains in view two or three minutes before passing onward.”

In winter, flickers forage on corn borers, a help to the fortunate farmer. They also eat a variety of berries, including poison ivy, bayberry, wild black cherry, hackberry, frost grape, flowering dogwood, blackberry, raspberry and sumac.

Flickers seem to have a generous tolerance of humans. They wait quite a while as someone approaches before flushing. Bent reports that a flicker, attacked by a hawk, usually waits until the last second, with the hawk in swoop, before it dodges quickly to the other side of the limb.

And not all birds migrate north or south. In 1962, 10 or more flickers took a boat to Europe, one disembarking in County Cork, Ireland. I like to think it was for the Guinness. But maybe they Googled ants in Ireland and learned there are more than 31,000 species in Ireland compared with only about 1,000 in North America. “Let’s eat!” 

Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale, Minnesota.

12 Responses

  1. Curt P.

    I live in the east bay of San Francisco I first saw a northern flicker when it was being attacked by some ferril cats by my house I chased the cats away and check on the flicker and I believe it had a broken wing so I picked it up in a towel and placed it in a box and took it into my home placed the box next to my heater .I was so worried it was going to go into shock and or die but I had done all I could for it so I had to wait till morning to take it to a bird sanctuary in Suisun ca.i dropped it off and it was calm and concious I believe it will survive but I’m no vet it was a beautiful bird and I wish it godspeed.
    Curt peregoy

  2. Joe May

    I watched two of feeding on the ground in my yard. Then they went through this ritual, faced off about 10 feet apart, standing erect with beaks extended upward and clucking. Then they went at each other, colliding in mid air, tussling, fell to the ground and separated, then resumed feeding. The odd thing about these birds was that they both had two bibs; one large and a smaller one up toward the throat. The red patch was not at the nape but a bit further down around the top of the shoulders. It was shaped like a crest and the short feathers in it were prominent.
    Has this sort of anomaly been seen before?

  3. Betty

    I’m in a Chicago Subaru and had a female flicker in my yard the other day. I had never seem one before. She was absolutely beautiful.

  4. Todd

    One stopped on it’s way through here in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago. Got a nice picture of it as it was filling up on something in the ground outside my living room window. Such a Beautiful Bird.

  5. Sally Tudhope

    Kansas City, Missouri…. I have two , maybe three……..some are ground pecking, the suet feeder, and sometimes on edge of bird feeder with sunflower seeds..they actually take turns on the hanging suet … one waits on the nearby tree trunk..

  6. Paula

    I have had a Northern Flicker visiting my bird feeder each day for the last 7 days. St Charles Missouri. So awesome.

  7. Adrienne

    I am seeing a northern flicker feeding At the suet bird feeder in St. Louis Missouri. The markings on the bird are so beautiful. It’s the first time I’ve seen one. So much fun watching the Flicker.

  8. Rosie

    Had a beautiful northern flickerhanging around my house in northern Ontario its a sight for sore eyes .It gives me such hope and believe it send me love from above as they can be knows as messengers in the aboriginal culture ? what a lovely bird ?

  9. Kimberlyn

    I’m in Middle TN and have never seen a Flicker until a week ago. When we came home, there was a bird on our porch. She was lying with her head on our table like it was dazed after hitting the window perhaps . We did some research and discovered it was a Flicker. We left her alone for quite awhile. She eventually flew off when my son got a little too close. We were thinking that she was injured, but apparently just taking a nap or stunned from hitting window. I have a few wonderful pictures, but sure would love to see her again!

  10. Linda

    Up in the northern panhandle of Idaho I’ve seen Northern Flickers enjoying suet cake if they’re around during the colder months. It diverts them from pecking under the eves of my house.

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