Our Friend Flicker

Late one winter when we lived in Colorado, a female American Kestrel had roosted for several weeks on a ledge above our neighbors’ garage.  Thinking perhaps she might consider breeding there, my husband built a nestbox for the neighbors to install.  Alas, she moved on.  But a month or so later, a pair of Northern Flickers took over the box and began nesting.  Every four or five days, my husband clambered up a ladder, opened the top of the nestbox, snapped some quick photos, and left.  We ended up with an interesting photo series of the developing nestlings.  A few years later, Steve Schunk was working on the Peterson reference guide to woodpeckers of North America and put out a call for anyone who might have photos of a nestling woodpecker.  I figured he probably had plenty of photos of Northern Flickers, since they occur throughout the U.S.  But I contacted him about our photo series anyway and he expressed enthusiastic interest in including the series.  Now, on p. 18 of this gorgeous book, we have achieved a tiny bit of fame within a very limited, very geeky circle of bird nerds!


Once upon a time, North America had two major flicker species—the more eastern Yellow-shafted Flicker and the more western Red-shafted Flicker.  The male Yellow-shafted bird has a red triangle on the nape (lacking in Red-shafted males and in both females).  The male Yellow-shafted also has a black mustache (red in Red-shafted males and again missing in females).  The eponymous color of the shafts of their tail and flight feathers shows either a lively lemon-yellow or a lovely orange-red.  A number of years ago, when scientists realized that these two species interbreed easily wherever they overlap, they were lumped into Northern Flicker.  As San Diego County’s largest woodpecker, flickers here are primarily the red-shafted subspecies.  North America’s 3rd largest woodpecker (behind Ivory-billed—likely extinct now—and Pileated) at roughly 11 – 12” long, a bird from either subspecies sports a long, pointed beak; a grayish brown back with dark bars; an off-white chest and belly with dark black spots; and a black crescent “necklace” on the upper breast.


At some point during the calendar year, Northern Flickers occur nearly everywhere in North America. In San Diego County, Northern Flickers are most numerous in the mountains and foothills, extending toward the coast more often in the north than in the south.  The local population grows considerably in winter as migrants flow down from the north, primarily from October through March.


As do all woodpeckers, a flicker has a greatly elongated set of small, articulated bones and cartilage covered with muscle (the hyoid apparatus) that supports and controls its tongue.  The two-pronged sheath that contains the tongue wraps completely around the skull and converges in the right nare—the bird’s nostril!  This extraordinary arrangement—hummingbirds are the only other birds that have it—allows woodpeckers to extend their tongues well beyond their beaks.  (That may not sound like much in the human world; but in the bird world, it’s huge.)   Flicker tongues, the longest of the woodpecker family, are especially sticky, so the birds can lap up their favorite food—ants.  They also extract beetle larvae by probing the soil with their long beaks.  In winter, they switch to fruit, berries, and seeds if ants and beetles become scarce.


Woodpeckers have other interesting physical features.  For instance, they use their extremely stiff tails to brace themselves as they move up and down tree trunks.  In addition, most perching birds have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back (anisodactyl) to help grip a tree branch.  But most woodpeckers have two toes facing forward and two facing backward (zygodactyl), for better traction when traveling along trunks.  They also have much longer, more curved claws than non-climbing birds do, for greater gripping power.


An obligate cavity nester, the most frequent flicker nest site described in the San Diego County Bird Atlas was coast live oak; observers also reported willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores, where the birds often choose softer woods because they have rather weak beaks compared to other woodpeckers.  Clutch size averages 6−7, with a vast range of 3–12.  Incubation begins one to two days before the last egg is laid.  Both the male and female incubate the eggs: The male does nighttime duty, switching with his mate just before sunset and just after sunrise.  Chicks typically hatch 9−10 days after the last egg is laid.  The adult’s pharynx (the upper part of the esophagus) expands to form a temporary crop, which the adult stuffs primarily with ant larvae and regurgitates into the mouths of the young.  Nestlings leave the nest in the order they hatched, about 24−27 days after hatching.  The adults and juveniles usually leave their breeding area shortly after fledging, although the kids don’t remain dependent on adults for long


The scientific name of the Northern Flicker is Colaptes (Greek for “chisel”) auratus (Latin, “gilded”), originally assigned to the yellow-shafted subspecies when it was considered a stand-alone species.  (When species are combined, a new scientific name isn’t always created, just to add to the fun and confusion.)  It’s not clear how the common name “flicker” evolved.  My favorite theory is that it’s an imitation of one of the bird’s many vocalizations.  Heard mostly during breeding season, it’s a soft, plaintive-sounding “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a”—or, to some, “flick-a.”  They’re most commonly identified by a repetitive “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” during breeding season or their strident “KLEEEE-yer” call year-round.


As the woodpecker most likely to be found on the ground rather than in trees, in much of North America, the Northern Flicker confounds nonbirders by foraging on suburban lawns and having the temerity not to be the familiar, worm-stalking American Robin.  Listen for the strident “KLEEE-yer” in the coming months and welcome these lovely anteaters.


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