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Northern Flicker (red-shafted variety) feeding young. Photo: Larry Master, used with permission
Northern Flicker (red-shafted variety) feeding young. Photo: Larry Master, used with permission

Natural Selections: Northern Flicker

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The Northern Flicker is one of the most recognizable birds. This distinctly-marked member of the woodpecker family, instead of browsing wood for their food like their relatives, digs for food in the ground. Martha Foley and Curt Stager explore its habits.

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Martha Foley: I think flickers are maybe the second bird I could Identify as a little kid. The first, of course, were robins. And the second were flickers because they are big, easy to see, very distinctive looking, and they are often on the ground a lot. It wasn't until years later I found out they are actually a woodpecker.

Curt Stager: Yeah, you don't think of a woodpecker pecking the ground instead of wood.

MF: Exactly, you think of a woodpecker being on the tree. If you don't see it pecking on a tree, how does it get to be called a woodpecker?

CS: Maybe you'd see the flickers, too as a kid, near where you'd see the robins because they like it along the edges of roads and fields.

MF: We would see them always when we had to drive on a dirt road into our camp. It was a sandy road and they would always be flying up from the road. You'd see the big white patch at the base of the tail and my mom would always say, "There goes the flicker!". It was like a greeting as we went down the road.

CS: It makes sense, because if you're in that open area it's easy to see the ground. Their main food is ants, and also beetle grubs, but mostly ants.

MF: So really open ground, not even with vegetation.

CS: That makes sense, too. Woodpeckers are pecking at rotting trees to get at insects and the ground has insects in it, too.

MF: If they eat on the ground, and they're unusual as woodpeckers for that, do they even get into the trees at all? Do they nest on the ground?

CS: It's just the foraging that's on the ground. They live in trees, in nest cavities. A lot of times they actually excavate the cavities themselves, instead of taking it over from someone else like a lot of other birds do.

MF: So they'll whack into a tree not to eat, but to nest. Weird. That's a lot of trouble, you know?

CS: Right. It's weird. As a kid I used to watch the Woody Woodpecker cartoons and I though he was eating the wood or something like that. Why is he pounding on that? You either are pounding on the tree as a woodpecker--if it's a rotten one--to pry it open to get at the grubs. And that's the same thing you would do as a flicker, try to pry open the ground to get at the grubs. Another one is to excavate a nest cavity. In the case of these flickers, it's usually the males. Usually on things like a big aspen tree where the wood is kinda soft--maybe there's some heart rot or something that makes it easier. The other one is if you're drumming on the tree, and that's a different situation where you want a dense, resonating one that makes a big sound.

MF: And they all have their distinct downy hairy woodpecker calls?

CS: Instead of making a call, you make the rhythmic drumming. That's for territory and attracting a mate. When they fly, you can even tell they are woodpeckers, they do this unique flap-bounding, some people call it.

MF: Let me ask you how they eat. If they are down in the dirt, they're eating ants, you say?

CS: Mostly ants, sometimes beetle larvae. They have this sticky tongue that will sort of lap them up. Sort of an ant-eater bird. And they have, like most birds, a thing called a crop which is like a sack in their throat. They will sort of swallow the ants and the grubs, but they won't totally swallow them into their stomachs. So they'll have this bulging throat of food that they'll bring back to their babies. Depending on how old the chicks are, they might chop them up like baby food. As they get older, they'll get the whole bugs.

MF: As a closing note let me ask you one last thing. You have in your hand there a yellow feather. I grew up calling them Yellow Shafted Flickers, which is how they are identified in many of the old bird books, but no longer. Now I understand they are called Northern Flickers? What happened?

CS: It's because there are two basic kinds. In the east, they have yellow shafts on their feathers and sort of a yellow tinge to them. Out west, west of the Rockies, they are red. Not because they make the feather that way, but supposedly because of something in their diets, which would be very interesting to find out what that is. Actually, if you go along the rockies, there is actually a hybrid zone where they interbreed.

MF: Are they orange? (laughs)

CS: I don't know, actually. I don't know how that works. Maybe one wing is red and one yellow. (laughs) I don't know. But since they are actually one species, people say let's just lump them together.

MF: Northern Flicker. Thank you very much, Curt. 

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