Common Name: Northern Flicker
Latin Name: Colaptes auratus
Size and identifying features: 28-31cm. Watch for a flash of yellow/orange/red on the underside of the wings 😊
Sounds: Flick-Flick-Flick, wick-wick-wick or a high-pitched pew, pew
Habitat, Diet and Ecosystem Role
Range: Year-round resident through much of southern Canada and the United States. Breeds across all of Canada. Individual birds may shift their range between summer breeding and winter homes.
Habitat: Natural habitat is open woodland forest but can often be seen in backyards
Diet: Insects, fruit, seeds and nuts. Can often be seen at backyard feeders, particularly in the winter.
Ecosystem Role: Flickers are prolific anteaters consuming up to 5000 a day during the summer! With this, they help control ant populations. Their love of insects can also help prevent disease in trees where they eat the larvae of potentially damaging insects before they cause trouble.
Flickers create cavities in trees for nesting which can be used by other animals as well including owls, bufflehead and goldeneye ducks, other cavity nesting songbirds and mammals.
Intergrade Northern Flickers - S. Jordan-McLachlan
Flickers are members of the woodpecker family but unlike other woodpeckers, flickers are often found on the ground eating since ants are their favorite!
The Northern Flicker was once thought to be two separate species, the Red-shafted and the Yellow-shafted Flicker. The Red-shafted sub-species males have red "mustaches" malar stripes while the Yellow-shafted have black malar stripes. It is thought that the glaciers of the ice age separated the flicker into two separate areas long enough that they developed different markings including the malar stripes. With the retreat of the glaciers their two separate populations are now coming together and because they can successfully mate with each other they are now called the Northern Flicker.
Flickers don’t just eat ants, they also use them for grooming. While enjoying a snack, flickers can be seen almost bathing in ants. These ants will release their defense, formic acid which actually acts as an antiparasitic, helping ward off mites and other parasites!
Flickers and woodpeckers often get a bad rap for drilling holes in house siding. There are two reasons they might do this:
1. To create a nest cavity. If natural nesting sites are in short supply, woodpeckers may turn to homes to raise their brood. Providing them with an artificial nest box can solves this problem!
2. The second reason woodpeckers peck at houses is to get insects. In this case, they are doing you a favor! If you notice woodpeckers going at wood siding, it might be a good idea to take a closer look. They may be finding a problem before it gets too big!
In the spring males can be heard drumming on trees in our natural areas to let everyone know where their territory but they have discovered that light standards and metal chimneys work really well too! If you hear a rapid tapping outside your window, take a look, it might be a flicker trying to bring in the ladies!
In order to peck away for communication, nest excavation and hunting, Northern Flickers like other woodpeckers have a few adaptations to prevent them from getting headaches including plate-like bones in their skulls to increase flexibility, a specially formed hyoid bone that wraps around the whole skull and acts as a seatbelt to reduce impact and a lower jaw bone that is longer than the upper. This differing length in bones helps direct the shock from pecking to the body rather than the head!
All woodpeckers have elongated tongues that wrap around their skulls but Northern Flickers hold the record for the longest woodpecker tongue in North America, they can extend their tongue 2 inches past the tip of their beak! All the better to reach into anthills and tree cavities for a snack!
Also helping Flickers eat ants, their salivary glands produce a sticky substance that acts like a sticky trap to catch their prey. Not only that, but their saliva produces an antacid to neutralize the formic acid defense of the ants. No tummy troubles here!
How are Northern Flickers faring in Calgary?
Every May citizen scientists led by Nature Calgary perform a spring bird count. Not only do these counts help estimate the presence of birds now but over time these numbers can help identify trends in bird populations as the city continues to grow and change. The count covers an 80km radius from the center of the city as seen in the image below. To the right are population trend numbers for Northern Flickers between 1979 and 2021
The Christmas Bird Count is another way that citizen scientists are helping keep track of birds across the world. Every year people are invited to document birds both in their yards and while they are out over a specific 24 hour period in December. This past December, 363 Northern Flickers were recorded, the most since 1952 and a 78% increase over the 10 year average.