Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker has a very distinctive call – or on second thought I should say it can be rather confusing. The Flicker and the Pileated Woodpecker have very similar calls; and when you hear one call, if you use your imagination, it can sound like you are in an exotic location somewhere deep in the jungle. Both birds have their calls described as “crazy jungle bird”. And in fact the two Woodpeckers do sound very similar – I’ve even heard that some experts may have a hard time telling them apart. The way I might tell the difference is by listening carefully to any other calls the bird may be making. The Pileated pretty much has only the one call – it’s a loud tremolo that may be followed by loud drumming, or a steady drilling on a tree. The Northern Flicker also has this loud tremolo-type call, however, they also make a variety of other calls, they’re really quite vocal. So if I hear some other sorts of calls, I can figure it’s a Flicker. Of course seeing the bird verifies the sound.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker is a Woodpecker, but they mainly feed on the ground going after their favorite food: Ants. You don’t always think that a Woodpecker would be down on the ground foraging in the grass. They do nest in tree cavities and they use their abilities to excavate nest holes for that purpose. They also drum, or drill, on trees and other noisy items as they make their territorial and mating calls.

The Northern Flicker is the 3rd largest Woodpecker in North America, the Pileated and Ivory-billed (possibly extinct)  Woodpeckers would be the two larger birds. The Flicker has white rump-patch that is conspicuous in flight.

Yellow-shafted Flicker

Yellow-shafted Flicker

The male and female look very much alike although the black malar stripe of the Yellow-shafted Flicker is usually present only in males.

Speaking of Yellow-shafted, there are two sub-species of Northern Flicker in North America: the Yellow-shafted and the Red-shafted. The Red-shafted Flicker occurs in the western U.S., while the Yellow-shafted occurs in the eastern half. The Red-shafted Flicker male has a red malar stripe and lacks the red nape crescent that is present on the male Yellow-shafted. The term “shafted” referrers to the shaft of their feathers, which can be seen when the bird is in flight.  Watch a Yellow-shafted Flicker fly and you can easily see the golden glow in the undersides of the wings of the bird.

The two sub-species can hybridize and produce an “Orange-shafted” variety. The hybrids mainly show up in the “rain” shadow of the Rocky Mountains from Texas to Alaska.  The Red and Orange-shafted varieties do show up in Minnesota from time to time, but it would be a rare sighting.

By September, the fall migration will be underway as many Flickers from further up north return to their wintering habitat. Flickers from the Midwest mainly winter in Texas. Many times in the fall you don’t expect to see a Woodpecker fly up from the lawn and sometimes they can look like a Robin.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker is well adapted to habitats altered by humans, commonly breeding in urban as well as suburban and rural environments, and visiting backyard bird feeders. Nevertheless, Breeding Bird Survey data indicate significant declines in abundance. Reasons for these declines are unclear, but likely explanations are loss of habitat and competition with the European Starling for nest cavities. Although the Northern Flicker remains abundant, this declining trend should be viewed with concern because the species plays a central “keystone” role in the ecology of woodland communities where it excavates many of the cavities later used by other hole-nesting species. (from Birds of North America On Line) Carroll Henderson of the DNR says that Flicker populations have been declining by 5% each year and he attributes this decline to lawn chemicals.

Northern Flicker, yellow-shafted by Alice Hill

Northern Flicker, yellow-shafted by Alice Hill

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