Several times each winter, we receive phone calls from someone who has just seen a “large beautiful bird” at their feeder, which they have never seen before. They describe the bird, and I say, “Yes, that’s a northern flicker.” To which their usual reply is, “Oh no, it’s not a flicker; I see them around all summer, but they are not this big or here in the winter.”
This is followed by a long discussion about flickers and the fact that they are seeing it about 3 feet away at a window feeder instead of 200 feet away across their yard, which explains its size.
Little by little, they begin to realize their bird is indeed a northern flicker, but they make one more attempt to make it some rare and exotic bird by saying, “Well, if it is a flicker, what’s it doing here in winter?”
This is one of the foibles of birding, especially for beginning birders. Even the commonest bird, when seen up close for the first time, seems huge, and you see markings and colors that you never dreamed were there. Instead of a middle-size tan woodpecker, the flicker suddenly is a beautiful, big tan bird with black spots below and bars across its back, a black bib and a gorgeous red mustache. Because it is perched, you seldom see the large white rump patch, the red wing linings or the undulating woodpecker flight, all of which are the field marks usually used in distance identification.
As to its being here in winter, there are always a few flickers that winter in the area. However, we seldom see them until we have enough snow to cover the ground and stay on trees and shrubs. Normally, flickers can find enough food, so they don’t have to visit feeders. Unlike other woodpeckers, flickers spend a great deal of time on the ground. As long as snow doesn’t cover south-facing slopes, they can find anthills, which they can probe with their long, flexible tongue to collect ants and larvae. They also eat fruits such as juniper berries and whatever larvae or insects they can find in the duff beneath the trees.
Only when snow covers all of these foods do flickers resort to our feeders, where they generally eat millet, which they scoop up by turning their bill sideways into the grain. The birds that winter here are probably not the same birds that summer here. Our summer nesting flickers probably move farther south in the fall but are replaced by flickers from farther north who thought this looked like a fine place to winter when they arrived last September. Many years they would have no problems, but this year the extreme cold has kept snow on the ground and food scarce. Nevertheless, most of these birds will survive to return north, and our nesting flickers will return by late March to reclaim their nesting territories.
Flickers have a loud, clear territorial call of “kwik-wik-wik-wik,” which can last as long as five seconds. They have a softer “wik-a-wik-a-wik-a ee” that is used for close conversation between the pair, and of course like all woodpeckers they drum. This is done for advertising their availability to acquire a mate and to claim territory. It therefore is made as loud as possible by drumming on hollow branches, split-top utility poles, metal streetlight caps and gutter pipes — a terrifying sound when it is done just above the head of your bed and doubly so when it occurs at daybreak.
Flickers are cavity nesters that excavate their own holes in dead, dying or living trees. They seldom use these nest cavities a second year but may make a new cavity in the same tree. This probably is beneficial in helping to control nest parasites and predators. It is also very valuable for other creatures, which use these abandoned, weathered cavities for their own nests. Among the creatures that take over these old cavities are saw-whet owls, mountain, western and eastern bluebirds, bufflehead ducks, purple martins, perhaps tree swallows and even western red squirrels.
The yellow-shafted flicker of the East and the red-shafted flicker of the West were once considered two distinct species. Since color differences are minor and they breed together readily whenever their ranges overlap, they have now been listed as two color forms of the same species and are now called northern flickers. Bigger than a robin and noisy during the breeding season, they will soon return. Look for them in late March.