May 8, 2014 | Featured Web Article

Northern Flicker: The Ground-Dwelling Woodpecker

The northern flicker prefers open areas of scattered trees, such as parks, cemeteries, and backyards. Of all of our woodpeckers, this si the one most likely to be seen on the ground, whwere the flicker loves to eat ants.
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A familiar and fairly large (13 inches long) woodpecker, the northern flicker is a distinctively marked bird that—unlike other woodpeckers—is often seen foraging on the ground. The eastern form of the flicker is known as the yellow-shafted flicker for its bright lemon yellow underwing and tail color. A red-shafted form of the northern flicker occurs in the West. There are more than 130 different names by which the flicker is known, including high-hole, yellowhammer, and yawkerbird.

How do I identify it? The northern flicker is all field marks with its bright yellow wing flashes, white rump, spotted breast, and barred back. It is not easily confused with any other bird. In the East, both sexes have a red crescent on the back of the head, but only males show a black "moustache" mark on the cheek. In the West, the red-shafted form of the northern flicker lacks the red crescent on the back of the head, but males show a red moustache. The flicker has several calls including a single note kleer, a short wickawicka series, and a monotonous wickwickwickwick song. It also communicates by drumming on the resonating surface of a tree, pole, or even metal downspouts and chimney flues.

Where do I find it? The northern flicker is found almost everywhere wooded habitats exist, though open woods and woodland edges are preferred. Look for them foraging on open grassy areas and along sidewalks, especially where there are any colonies. In their swooping, undulating flight they are hard to ignore as they flash a white rump, a brown back barred with black, and either golden-yellow or pinkish-red underwings. Flickers in the northern portion of the range migrate southward in winter, while southern birds are non-migratory.

What can I feed or do to attract it? Flickers love ants. A flicker pokes its long bill into an anthill and uses its long, sticky tongue to extract the ants. They also eat other insects, as well as fruits and seeds. Offering suet, corn, sunflower seeds, grapes, or peanuts at your feeders or hung on large trees will be attractive to flickers. Providing nest boxes in your wooded backyard is another way to attract them. Equally important is the presence of ground-dwelling insects (leave those non-threatening anthills alone!) and dead trees or dead branches. A large, dead tree branch placed vertically in your yard may entice a flicker to stop and check out your other offerings.

Where does it nest? Northern flickers excavate a new nest cavity almost every year. In doing so, they perform a much-needed service for many other hole-nesting birds—from chickadees to ducks—that use old flicker nests because they lack the strong bills and ability to excavate their own nesting cavities. Both male and female flickers excavate the nest cavity in a dead tree or branch. The female lays 5 to 10 eggs; both sexes share the 11-day incubation period. Young flickers leave the nest after about 25 days. Flickers will use nest boxes with an interior floor of 7 x 7 inches, an interior height of 16 to 24 inches, and a 21?2-inch entry hole. Because excavation is a vital part of courtship, boxes packed full of woodchips are more attractive. Competition for cavities from European starlings is fierce and may be causing a decline in flickers.

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »

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  • I have the same situation. The feeder is attached to the middle of a large picture window that goes ceiling to floor w/ no ledge or sill for animals to climb or balance. Yet every morning all the sunflower seeds have been cracked open and hulls left. Any ideas what it is?
    by Liza Fox, Sun, 15 Nov 2020
  • I have a bird feeder that sticks to my window and I've been hearing noises against the window at night right now its going on. But whatever it is it is aware of me. And when I get to window it leaves.I can't imagine a squirrel or mouse or possom being able to get at it. ...So as I was reading this article im to assume no bird eats at night. Or no birds will eat at night. Why is that? Then im also thinking of a sinereo that could a lost confused bird eat at night. This eating thing is watching meI turn out the light go there noise dissappears..Thank you.
    by Nosferatu, Thu, 05 Nov 2020
  • I have metal baffles (cones) on my pole for my bird feeders. Something is still tempting them at night. What else could it be? Deer???
    by Ella Spencer Connolly, Thu, 27 Aug 2020
  • I found where he lives, then I keep him up all day by singing at full volume! Hah, that'll show the little sucker!
    by Pike Juan, Tue, 11 Aug 2020
  • I never knew feeding birds could be so confusing. I love watching the birds in my backyard even though I don't get a very big variety.
    by JustMyOpinion, Sun, 26 Jul 2020