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 experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018