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Northern Flickers – The Exotic-Looking Woodpecker

January 7, 2013
A male Northern Flicker

A male Northern Flicker

The western form of the Northern Flicker used to be called the “Red-Shafted” Flicker to distinguish it from the eastern “Yellow-shafted” Flicker. The Red-shafted Flicker sticks around all year, happily eating ants on the ground,  suet at feeders and occasionally drilling holes in the side of homes. They can hear insects moving in trees.  Supposedly moving your alarm clock away from the wall might discourage them from drilling those holes into your walls.

A female Northern Flicker

A female Northern Flicker

You can see why they are called a “Flicker”. That brilliant orange under the wings and tail creates a dramatic burst of orange as they fly by.  They undulate as they fly and extend those bright wings fully.  They look quite exotic – almost like they belong further south rather than spending their winters up here.  Males have a red “mustache”, whereas the females have no red on their heads. The males put on an impressive display with those colourful tail and wing feathers.

A female Northern Flicker  feeding a young flicker

A female Northern Flicker feeding a young flicker

Flickers often feed on the ground, digging up and eating ground-nesting ants. They have a loud “laughing call” but they also have what I can only describe as a “whunka, whunka” call. Flickers drill their own holes  and they often use live deciduous trees like aspen, cottonwood or poplar as nesting trees.

A Northern Flicker young ready to fledge

A Northern Flicker young ready to fledge

Like many other young of hole-nesters  flicker young are very vocal when they are hungry.  It is not difficult to find flicker (and other woodpecker species) nests when the young are old enough to call. I suppose that hole-nesting young can afford to call more loudly than young of open-nesting species because their hole nest keeps them safer from aerial predators.  They are still vulnerable to squirrels, chipmunks and snakes, however.  I watched a brood of three flickers fledge one summer. The last young out of the nest was skinny and finally left to chase the male who was bringing food to a fledged sibling.

A male Northern Flicker displaying his bright orange feathers

A male Northern Flicker displaying his bright orange feathers

The poor adults are almost “run off their feet” (does that translate into “flown off their wings”?) keeping up with the demands of those noisy young.  Why call loudly if it might bring a predator? Well, if you quiet down when you are fed, your parents may be motivated to bring you more food the more you call. The young, after all, carry the adults’ genes and the parents’ hope for passing those genes on. A bit counter-intuitive. Hold your parents hostage with behaviour that might attract predators to eat you.

A male Northern Flicker displaying for a female.

A male Northern Flicker displaying for a female.

Having a feeder outside my window gives me a great opportunity to watch flickers over winter.  Yet yet another great reason to have a bird feeder!

All photos and writing in this blog copyright J.A. Siderius 2013.

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