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A Bird in Hand

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The Northern Flicker The Northern Flicker

the Northern Flicker

In a perfect world, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Songbirds sing, falcons swoop, and diving ducks, well, dive. But just like every human family seems to have its black sheep, that one recalcitrant family member who just has to march to a different beat, so too does the bird world. And this brings us to the Norther Flicker. A woodpecker that just doesn’t know, or care, what it means to be a good and proper woodpecker.

Woodpeckers peck wood, whether stripping bark for insect grubs like the Three-toed Woodpecker or sinking sap wells like the Red-naped Sapsucker. No matter what they are specifically trying to eat, woodpeckers make their living exploiting whatever it is mother nature has given them to find in the trees. But not the Northern Flicker. Oh no, this rebel has got to be different.

The Flicker is the only woodpecker in the world that feeds on the ground. Even odder, it eats ants. And just about only ants. To the utter disgust (and I’ve heard privately, the shame) of other members of the Picidae family, this otherwise normal woodpecker digs in the ground like a rooting pig in its pursuit of ants. During summer hikes I have found on many dirt trails scores of ant colonies that had been excavated by flickers. I suppose a beak originally designed for attacking green wood can make short work of hard-packed soil.

That is not to say that flickers don’t spend some time in trees. They raise their broods there, hollowing out cavities in dead standing timber. Near Travers Park in Sandpoint I found one mated pair that had started three nesting holes before finishing a fourth, in which they started a family.  

How do you identify a Flicker? In structure they are like most other woodpeckers: prominent chest, stiff tail feathers, sleek profile, and a serious stabber of a beak. Both males and females are tawny colored and have conspicuous black bibs. Their backs and wings are covered in a dark speckled ladder design and that stiff tail—which is used a prop to sit on—is black. Under the wings and tail you’ll notice a reddish coloring on the inner feathers. This is because the local specie is the Red-shafted Flicker, which is the western variety of the Northern Flicker. Areas east of the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic is the domain of the Yellow-shafted Flicker, the eastern form of this specie. Lastly, males can be distinguished from females by their bright red mustaches that sweep over the cheeks. Quite dashing if not a bit ostentatious. In flight, flickers fly that characteristic wave pattern typical of woodpeckers —undulating up and down, up and down.

The Northern Flickers in our area are residents, and though they might come down off the higher elevations in the winter, they do not really migrate. Still, the Northern Flickers farther up north may come south and are one of the few known species of woodpeckers to regularly travel away from their summer grounds. But that raises the question: how do these birds survive the winter, especially in places such as ours that are covered for weeks on end with snow? Easy, anthills. This winter I’ve watched a solitary male rip apart an anthill that had the misfortune (for the ants, anyway) of being exposed in the snow. Everyday the bird would tear into the side, hollowing it out a little bit at a time. A few winters ago I saw three flickers simultaneously attack the same anthill, each assaulting a different section. Within a couple days the anthill was gone, completely annihilated.

Another feature of the Northern Flicker that needs to be mentioned is its call. You have probably heard it dozens if not hundreds of times and never knew it was the Northern Flicker. Like the whistling notes of the American Robin or the Song Sparrow, the call of the Flicker is part and parcel of the outdoor experience in our area. I’ve included a link for you so you can listen to it via the Internet. I guarantee you, you’ve heard it countless times. (Hear it here)

Yes, Northern Flickers are so common that it is easy to overlook them and not to marvel at their special nature. This bane of ant colonies everywhere is not your typical woodpecker. In fact, it is as atypical as they come. Just like this certain uncle I have...

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, flicker, northern flicker

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