Speaking of Nature: The northern flicker

  • I selected this photo of a northern flicker because it showed every aspect of the variety of colors and markings that can be found on the species, including the male’s “mustache” and the yellow shafts of the tail feathers. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 12/15/2020 1:14:59 PM

It was just around Thanksgiving when I received an email from Irene M. on the topic of flickers at bird feeders. In my response, I said I thought that the northern flickers and the red-bellied woodpeckers of our area to be some of the most engaging birds that visit my feeders. Irene wrote back and said that she had never heard of a red-bellied woodpecker before (more to come on that front next week) and off we went on a fun exchange of information on birds.

Well, that communication with a reader was still fresh in my mind when I happened to look out the kitchen window and see a northern flicker at one of my own feeders. For me, the sighting of a flicker in the winter isn’t a particularly rare occurrence, but regular daily sightings are still something that I would describe as noteworthy. Then I decided to go back to that email exchange and review everything that I wrote.

There wasn’t a great deal remaining in the first email that I sent to Irene, but it pretty much said it all: “I also find their seasonal shifts to be something of a mystery. At times they are all over the place, while there are those other, sadder times when they seem to just evaporate into thin air. I have noticed a welcome uptick in red-bellies, but have yet to see a flicker at my feeders this fall. I think it may be time to put out some suet cakes and drink coffee by the kitchen window.”

In the end, it wasn’t suet that had attracted this particular flicker, but rather a cylinder of hardware cloth that had been filled with peanuts in the shell. This particular offering is actually one of the most popular foods among the birds in my yard, but it is also restricted to birds with a certain way of doing things. Birds like cardinals, mourning doves, sparrows and finches are not able (or willing) to use this particular type of feeder, but the chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, blue jays and woodpeckers are all over it.

So what is a flicker anyway? The northern flicker is a surprisingly large bird in the “small bird” group. At just about 13 inches in length, the flicker is noticeably larger than the 9-inch red-bellied woodpecker and it is gigantic when compared to a 7-inch downy woodpecker. Additionally, it is noticeably different in coloration, which makes its appearance at a feeding station an even much more eye-popping experience.

There is also a very good reason that flickers tend to be rare around bird feeders. Although they are definitely members of the woodpecker group, flickers stand apart from the other woodpecker species in the way that they find food. The other species will seek out dead, rotting wood and there they will look for insects (adults or larvae) that are living in it. They “peck” at the wood in order to uncover food.

In contrast, the flicker is a connoisseur of ants and beetles and these can apparently be found in greater abundance on the ground. So, while old woodpecker habits remain (such as excavating cavities to serve as nesting sites) flickers might better be described as groundpeckers. This little natural history tidbit goes a long way in explaining why flickers are somewhat rare at winter feeders. Frozen ground does not offer much hope for a flicker, never mind frozen ground covered with snow. Thus, flickers are highly migratory and simply aren’t around.

That being said, there are always exceptions. Once in a while, a bird will stick around and if it does manage to find a well-stocked feeding station it may become increasingly dependent on it as the winter deepens. I have now seen this flicker at my feeders on a daily basis for about a week and I think he is going to be a regular. I say “he” with confidence because of the black “mustache” feathers that stretch along the side of his neck. Female flickers have a plumage that is identical to the males all except for the absence of those mustache feathers.

So, if there is any way to find a silver lining in the reality that lays before us, I think the appearance of this flicker may offer an opportunity. In a normal year, I would spend several days at my parents’ house for Christmas and that would mean an interruption of food availability at my own house. This year, I will be spending the entire vacation at home, but the feeders will remain full. Thus, there exists a real chance that the flicker will stay. I have put out fresh suet cakes and he seems to like them even more than the peanuts.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 23 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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