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10 Fun Facts About the Northern Flicker

 Audubon > News Read More 

The Northern Flicker is North America’s widest-ranging woodpecker, a common inhabitant of forest edges, savannas, and suburban areas from Alaska to Mexico to Maine. But it is also among the more unusual members of its family. Instead of the black-and-white plumage and tree-clinging habits typical of its woodpecker cousins, flickers have dappled brown feathers and a tendency to hug the ground. One could argue that these medium-largebirds might be more aptly known as dirtpeckers—and since the species already has dozens of folk names, what’s one more? With their unique behavior, flashy pops of color, and noisy interactions, flickers aren’t just distinctive among woodpeckers, they’re also among North America’s most endearing neighborhood birds. Read on to learn more about what sets the Northern Flicker apart. 

1.) Although theories abound, nobody is quite certain how the flicker got itscommon name. Some say its brightly colored feather shafts, which may appear to flicker as the bird flies past, were the inspiration. Others claim it refers to either the wicka wicka calls the woodpecker makes when agitated or the flicking motion of its wings and tail as it cries.

2.) Over the years, the flicker has been known by myriad other monikers across the country. A 1900 monograph by Frank L. Burns lists 124 regionalnames. Some reference the plumage: yellowhammer, as Alabamans know their state bird, for its feather shafts; cotton-rump, for the prominent white patch visible when it takes flight; and crescent-bird, for the black semicircle on its breast. Others are folksy terms derived from local vernacular and legend, such as gaffle woodpecker (likening the bird to a “gaffer”—a talkative old man) or shad-spirit (referring to the coincidence of the bird’s arrival with the spring migration of shad up Massachusetts rivers). All in all, the flicker has more folk names than any other American breeding bird, according to James K. Sayre’s 1996 book, North American Bird Folknames and Names. 

3.) Until 1973, the Northern Flicker was categorized as two separate species: the Yellow-shafted Flicker, found east of the Rocky Mountains, and the Red-shafted Flicker to the west. (The cactus-dwelling Gilded Flicker of the Southwest was also lumped under the Northern Flicker umbrella in 1973, but it was made a full species again in 1985.) Yellow-shafted and red-shafted birds differ not only in the hues of their colorful wing and tail feather shafts, but also in the patterns on their napes (unadorned gray-brown in the West, accented with red in the East) and cheeks (gray on red-shafted birds and brown on their eastern counterparts). Yellow-shafted males also have a black mustache while red-shafted males have a red streak. Studies indicate that, despite their differences, the birds have very similar DNA and are best classified as a single species. The two forms interbreed freely where their ranges overlap in the western Great Plains, producing offspring with various characteristics of their parents—including orange-tinted flight feathers.

4.) Genetics aren’t the only way flickers get their flare. When birds in the East eat the berries of the invasive bush honeysuckle, red pigments from the fruits sometimes infuse growing feathers, resulting in birds with a mix of yellow and red on their wings and tails. Such individuals were once thought to be descended from western parents, but recent research confirmed that the new addition to their diet was the culprit.

5.) While Northern Flickers do enjoy fruit from time to time, ants are their bread and butter. The woodpeckers probe the ground with their long bills and flexible tongues in search of their favorite food or other tasty insects. Their pursuit of anthills often leads them to lawns, parks, and other patches of short grass or bare dirt.

6.) Flickers seek out ants for more than just a quick meal. When visiting ant colonies, the birds sometimes spread their wings out over the mounds and allow the bugs to crawl on them in a behavior called “anting.” The exact function of anting, which has been observed in hundreds of species but seems to be particularly frequent among flickers, is unknown, but it is thought to help control feather parasites or reduce skin irritation while molting.

7.) Like any self-respecting woodpecker, Northern Flickers also bang on bark to forage and carve out nest cavities. While excavating trees, pairs communicate with one another via ritual tapping, an intimate pattern that flickers and other woodpeckers reserve for acknowledging their partners. To announce their territories to a wider audience, flickers hammer against the loudest surface they can find, which is most often a dead branch but can include particularly resonantmetal objects

8.) Male flickers play a larger role in rearing young than the females, an arrangement known as partially reversed sex roles. During breeding season, the male takes the lead in building the nest and incubating eggs—some of the smallest relative to adult body size of any birds in the world. Females remain involved throughout the breeding process, however, so the sex roles are not considered completely reversed. (That scenario, observed in only a few birds including emus and phalaropes, entails the female’s total desertion of the nest after egg laying.) 

9.) Unusually migratory among woodpeckers, flickers flee the northern reaches of their range in winter to avoid frost and ice that blocks access to their underground meals. On the East Coast, peak fall migration days sometimes treat lucky observers to spectacular flicker flights numbering in the thousands. While most birds settle in regions where temperatures rarely dip below freezing, a few hardy individuals will brave boreal or montane winters if they have access to a consistent food source like a suet feeder.

10.) For decades, this species has seen a slow but steady decline: While still common and widespread with an estimated total population of 12 million, the number of flickers has decreased by an average of 1 percent per year over the past half-century, witheastern, yellow-shafted birds experiencing sharper losses. The causes of the decline are unknown, but threats may include competition for nest holes from invasive European Starlings, the removal of dead and dying trees that can provide nesting habitat, and pesticide application on lawns and golf courses. Preserving snags and leaving lawns chemical-free can help ensure that flickers have ample opportunity to thrive.


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