One of the most attractive and fascinating birds to visit our feeders is the Northern flicker. They’re big and handsomely marked. When a flicker lands on the feeder, it gets your immediate attention. These are woodpeckers, but in many instances, they don’t appear to be a woodpecker. They are often seen feeding on the ground instead of pecking away in the trees. They get their most attention in the spring.
When flickers go house hunting, everyone in the neighborhood hears about it. Not only do they begin drumming on dead trees, power poles, metal fence gates and chimneys, they often hammer on houses. This territorial pounding is focused on attracting a mate, but the bird is also establishing its territory. They drum, call loudly and in all ways warn other males away from their chosen nesting area. The louder they are, the more the ladies are impressed.
A flicker foraging on the ground is interesting to watch. They have a distinctive way of hunting for grubs and bugs. Flickers actually “grid off” an area to give it a thorough digging. As they dig, they move sideways or backwards. How they determine how far they will move sideways before dropping backwards is a puzzle. Back and forth, they methodically work over the ground.
Gutters full of winter debris also attract them. When a flicker is working on your gutters, the first thing you see is clumps of needles and rotted leaves falling past the windows. These birds have large, long and strong beaks. They were designed for digging.
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A flicker at the feeder is one of the most interesting birds I have ever watched. Like other woodpeckers, they have a very long tongue. It actually wraps from the back of their head around to the top. They not only use this long tongue to explore tree cavities for bugs, it is a form of protection when they are hammering away on a structure of their choosing. This long tongue is capable of stretching way out to retrieve seeds from feeders. They almost look like they are lapping up the seeds.
There are two flickers seen in the Pacific Northwest. Once they were considered two distinct species, but because they interbreed successfully and raise fertile young, they were lumped into one species, the Northern flicker. Previously the two were known as the red-shafted flicker and the yellow-shafted flicker. The red-shafted is the bird more commonly seen, while the yellow-shafted is seen in small numbers during migration. Hybrids of the two are fairly common and they display plumage markings of both subspecies.
Both forms are heavily spotted on their undersides. Their grayish-brown backs have black horizontal stripes. Distinguishing features for flickers are the black bib they wear and their mustaches. The red-shafted male has red mustaches. The yellow-shafted has black mustaches and a red nape. Hybrids of the two subspecies wear a combination of these head markings. When either bird flies, the red or yellow shafts of its wings and tail are an easy-to-see flash mark.
In a few weeks, it will become evident that flickers are planning to nest in your neighborhood. Their loud calling of “flicka-flicka-flicka” is impossible to ignore. Take time to see where the sound is coming from. You may see both birds engaging in their unique courtship dance. They bow and move their heads from side to side while singing this rather loud love song.
Hopefully, as the weeks go by, you won’t also hear the sound of their drumming somewhere on your house. I’m already preparing to chase them away from the front porch posts. They just can’t resist them.
Write to Joan Carson at P.O. Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org