Northern Flicker: Unique, Beautiful Woodpeckers
Whether a northern flicker is gobbling ants on the ground or climbing a tree trunk, this bird's stunning field marks get noticed.
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What Does a Northern Flicker Look Like?
With eye-catching and distinct spotted plumage, the northern flicker is arguably the most beautiful woodpecker in North America. But their unique behaviors and characteristics are what really excite birders across the country.
Flickers in the East (yellow-shafted) have tan faces, gray crowns, red napes, black mustaches and yellow under wings and tail. Flickers in the West (red-shafted) have gray faces, brown crowns, no nape crescents, red mustaches and salmon under wings and tail. In the center of the continent, many flickers are intermediate between the two forms. These birds are 13 inches long with a wingspan of 20 inches.
The slight curve in a northern flicker’s beak comes in handy for digging for insects such as beetles or ants.
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Female Northern Flicker
Though both sexes share the same flashy field marks, the red or black face mustache is not present on the female northern flicker.
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Juvenile Northern Flicker
Young male northern flickers (both yellow- and red-shafted forms) have a very pale orange mustache at first, which is replaced with the classic black or red mustache that adults sport before midautumn. So in late summer or early fall, we might see young male flickers with patchy mustache marks, but a bird with a subtle face pattern is much more likely to be female.
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What Do Northern Flickers Eat?
Similar to downy and hairy woodpeckers, northern flickers are primarily insect eaters, but they are harder to entice to backyard feeders. Flickers forage for beetles, flies and moth caterpillars, but ants are their favorite treat, and they work hard to get them. Using their curved bills, they dig underground (the same way other woodpeckers hammer into wood) where the protein-packed larvae live.
“I think it’s so neat that they prefer to feed on the ground—it’s different from other woodpecker behavior,” says Emma Greig, head of Project FeederWatch (feederwatch.org) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They like to feed on ants and use their long sticky barbed tongues to capture them. They’re like the anteaters of the woodpecker world.”
In fall and winter, flickers dine on wild berries and weed seeds, including poison ivy, dogwood, sumac, wild cherry, elderberries, bayberries and sunflower seed. This is the best time of year to lure them into your backyard.
Check out the best foods for attracting woodpeckers.
Best Northern Flicker Bird Feeders
“Entice flickers with peanut hearts or sunflower seeds on a platform, the ground or a large hopper feeder,” says Emma. “They like foraging on the ground, which is why ground feeders are the most ideal. “When insects are scarce, any type of suet is a reasonable option for flickers,” Emma says. “They visit hanging cages or suet attached to a tree.”
If you don’t see flickers at your feeder right away, keep trying. “Even if you can’t entice them with store-bought food, create a flicker-friendly habitat if you have an open area of lawn in which they could forage,” Emma says. “Just be sure not to use pesticides if you want to attract flickers.
See the best woodpecker bird feeders.
More Ways to Attract Northern Flickers
Courtesy Barbara Bowman
Northern flicker populations are in decline in certain regions of the U.S., but you can give them a boost by adding a nest box they’ll use. Go to nestwatch.org for more information and consult our chart for specific birdhouse requirements. Flickers prefer birdhouses high above the ground.
Bird baths are another option—all species need fresh water.
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Nests and Eggs
Courtesy Jeffrey Kauffman
A mated pair works together to excavate a nesting cavity in a dead tree, utility pole or fence post. The female lays six to eight white eggs inside. Northern flicker fathers do the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping the eggs warm. Their incubating duties leave them sitting on eggs all night long and half the day as well.
During breeding season, rival flickers face off in a display called a “fencing duel.” Two birds face each other, bills pointed up, bobbing their heads while drawing a loop or figure eight pattern in the air.
“This was the second year that northern flickers made a nest in an old maple tree on my property. I wanted to capture all aspects of their nest building and raising their nestlings. Here the male (above) was returning to the nest to feed them. When I saw this image I was so excited. I think it shows the beauty of the bird with its yellow wing undersides, which are only caught when the flicker is in flight,” says reader Jeffrey Kauffman.
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Northern Flicker Call
Listen to the northern flicker’s song. Their loud, ringing call of repeated short yelps or the quick, rhythmic drumming (up to 25 times per second) is used to communicate and claim territory. You may hear a “flicka, flicka” sound, and also a loud “wick, wick, klee.”
Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“A flicker visits every year and loves to peck on our metal chimney, adding a little sound to its boisterous call,” says Stephanie Swayne of Tigard, Oregon.
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Northern Flicker Range Map and Habitat
Birders waiting for a backyard visit can look for northern flickers in almost any patch of open woodland across the continental U.S., including parks, wooded suburbs, streamside woods, river groves, and marsh edges. Keep your eyes low and you may flush one out from foraging.
Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.
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