Always in Season: Flicker still a mystery bird

For unfamiliarity among common birds in our area, the northern flicker must surely take the prize. Flickers are abundant at this time of year, but judging from the questions I get about birds, many people simply don't recognize them. Yet flickers...

For unfamiliarity among common birds in our area, the northern flicker must surely take the prize.

Flickers are abundant at this time of year, but judging from the questions I get about birds, many people simply don't recognize them.

Yet flickers are unmistakable. They are robin-sized birds and like robins, they feed on the ground.

But any resemblance to robins ends there. Flickers are members of the woodpecker family - though they are unusual woodpeckers.

Flickers do resemble woodpeckers in how they are put together. They have short, stout tails to brace themselves against vertical surfaces, and they have rather large, sharp bills to dig out prey species.


But unlike most woodpeckers, flickers don't usually feed in trees. Instead, they dig in the ground for ants and other insects, including ground-dwelling grubs. These diet specialties are not so different from those taken by other woodpeckers, but the red-headed, pileated, downy, hairy and red-breasted species take such morsels from standing timber rather than from from the earth.

Flickers are recognizably woodpeckers in their plumage, as well. Though flickers are colored differently than most woodpeckers, they do display the white rump patch that is common to the tribe. In addition, they have a kind of ladder-like pattern along the back. This is a characteristic plumage of the woodpecker clan, perhaps because it helps hide them against the bark of trees - though this hardly explains the occurrence of the pattern among flickers.

In sound, flickers are like woodpeckers, as well. They have a high-pitched, grating screech that's both arresting and annoying. It's used largely as an alarm call, notifying foraging flickers of the presence of such menaces as cats and curious humans.

Like other woodpeckers, flickers are cavity nesters. They do nest in this area, but most of the birds that we see at this time of year are actually migrants, moving south ahead of cold weather. Large numbers of flickers will occur again in mid-spring, when the birds are northbound.

Finally, flickers are similar to woodpeckers in their habit of drumming to attract attention - especially female flickers. In spring, flickers can be a nuisance because they hammer on the wooden siding of houses and, sometimes, even on empty barrels. This makes a terrible racket.

Despite all of these traits shared with other woodpeckers, flickers are unlike woodpeckers in important ways. One is foraging and feeding habits. Another is color. Although plumage patterns are like woodpeckers in some ways, flickers aren't the same color as most woodpeckers, and this creates confusion.

Flickers appear rather brownish overall, but a second glance will reveal subtle coloration that is both quite beautiful to our eyes and quite useful to the bird. Flickers appear to be scaled with black against a gray-brown background. No doubt this helps hide the birds as they forage among leaf litter.

In flight, flickers show prominent white in the rump and prominent color under the wings. More about this soon.


Female flickers are mostly gray in the face while males in our area usually have a black stripe just behind the bill. Technically, this is known as a "malar stripe," but it's easier to think of it as a mustache.

There are geographic differences among flickers, too, and this causes some confusion in our area. The common flicker here is yellow-shafted. This refers to the feathers on the underside of the wings, the so-called shafts. Birds from farther west have red shafts. Such red-shafted flickers occasionally - rarely, I think - occur here. Worse still from a beleaguered birder's point of view, intermediate colors also occur. Once these differences were enough to cause ornithologists to consider these flickers two distinct species, but that's no longer regarded as scientifically valid, since the birds interbreed freely wherever they occur together.

The northern flicker is the most widespread species of woodpecker in North America, occuring across the continent except in extreme desert conditions and in Arctic Alaska. A few flickers will attempt to winter here, though this is rare. Instead, fall is the time to get to know the northern flicker.

This shouldn't be difficult. A walk along the Red River Greenway should produce flickers. And it might not be necessary to go even that far. Flickers often show up on neighborhood lawns and in farmyards.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

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