I’ve been lucky to go to many of my favorite birding spots over the past week or so, and each trip has had something in common: Northern Flickers! I’m a big fan of woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers are no exception.
I remember exactly where I was when I spotted my first Flicker. Dave and I were walking along Strawbridge Lake and scanning the grass with our binoculars. “Robin…Robin…another robin…wait, what is that? Wow, it’s yellow underneath!” It was large, tan, and speckled. It had a long beak, black and red patches, and brilliant yellow feathers on its underparts. We didn’t even know we were looking at a woodpecker because it was pecking around in the grass. At the time we were newer to birding and only knew downys/hairys, so when our field guide told us we found another woodpecker species we were very excited. It always brightens my day seeing a Northern Flicker.
So it’s been an extra sunny week for me (despite all the rain/cold weather we’ve had in Jersey) because I’ve been seeing Northern Flickers everywhere. Northern Flickers have many characteristics and behaviors that make them unique from other North American Woodpeckers.
There are two variations of Flickers: Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted. Red-shafted are the Western variation, so since I’m on the East Coast I always see Yellow-shafted. These terms refer to the feathers under their wings and tails. When a Flicker flies you will see flashes of either yellow or red depending on your location.
Both males and females have gray caps, tan faces/bodies, black chest crescents, and spotted/speckled feathers. Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers have red patches on the nape of their necks. You can tell the difference between the sexes though: Yellow-shafted males have a black “mustache”. These “mustache” patches are actually called malar marks. Red-shafted males have red malar marks and both sexes lack the red nape patch that their Eastern cousins have. Where the two variations meet geographically you can find hybrids, or intergrades, which have traits of both Red- and Yellow- shafted Flickers.
When you think of woodpeckers, you probably picture them scaling up trees drumming at the bark, right? If you want to find a Northern Flicker though, your best bet is to look down, not up. Unlike other North American woodpecker species, Northern Flickers are the only species to forage on the ground because that’s where their favorite food lives: ants. They do also eat seeds, fruit, and nuts, but they mainly eat ants and beetles. One thing they do have in common with other woodpeckers is that they nest in tree cavities. On occasion, Northern Flickers have been found nesting in vacated Belted Kingfisher burrows. Another behavior they share with other woodpeckers is drumming on objects for territory defense and communication.
I was originally going to write about Flickers for Migration Monday, but only the Northern populations in Alaska and Canada are migratory. Northern Flickers in the United States are generally residents. (I have another cool bird planned for Migration Monday tomorrow)
So next time you see a large flock foraging in an open field don’t make my mistake and assume they’re all robins :-P! You may find the unique and awesome Norther Flicker mixed in with the bunch.