Northern Flicker: Unique, Beautiful Woodpeckers

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Whether a northern flicker is gobbling ants on the ground or climbing a tree trunk, this bird's stunning field marks get noticed.

northern flickerCourtesy Marie Lehmann
Male northern flicker

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

northern flicker Jeffrey Kauffman Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Jeffrey Kauffman
Female northern flicker heading back to her nest 

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

juvenile northern flickerCourtesy Joanna Thomas
Juvenile male northern flicker with mom

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.

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 4 best foods for attracting woodpeckers.

Best Northern Flicker Bird Feeders

northern flicker on suet feederCourtesy Tammy Lohr Brown
Northern flicker on a suet cage feeder

“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.

Discover the best suet feeders for winter birds.

More Ways to Attract Northern Flickers

northern flicker on bird bathCourtesy Barbara Bowman

Bird baths are another option—all species need fresh water—or offer a flicker-sized nest box in the spring.” Consult our chart for specific birdhouse requirements. Flickers prefer birdhouses high above the ground.

Nest and Eggs

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.

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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.

Learn why woodpeckers peck and how to stop it.

Northern Flicker Range Map and Habitat

northern flicker red shaftedCourtesy Jeannine Gailey
Male northern flicker (red shafted)

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.

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Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

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Rachael Liska
Rachael Liska is a freelance writer and editor specializing in birding, gardening, food and family. She has over 20 years of writing, editing, content strategy and project management experience in the parenting/family, food, gardening, home decor/goods, travel and birding niches.