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Northern
(Yellow-shafted)
Flicker

(Colaptes auratus auratus)
Banded January 29, 1999 - Carmel, Indiana

General Information

The Northern Flicker is a bird of open areas and forest edges wherever open ground is available. This species is also known as the Common Flicker, Yellow-shafted Flicker (Eastern morph), and Red-shafted Flicker (Western morph). The closely related Gilded Flicker occurs in the American Southwest, Northwestern Mexico and Baha California. Hybrids occur where Flicker ranges overlap.

Unlike most species of woodpeckers, Flickers forage mostly on the ground, consuming ants, termites, caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, other insects, spiders, berries, seeds, and nuts (Winkler et al. 1995). They readily come to feeders for seeds and suet.

 

The Flicker is about 13 inches long with a wingspan of 18 to 21 inches. Weights range from 4 to 6 ounces.

Yellow-shafted Flicker - Male
Figure 1 - Yellow-shafted Flicker - Male

 

Yellow-shafted Flicker - Male
Figure 2 - Yellow-shafted Flicker - Male

 

The male Flicker has a black mustache (red in the Red-shafted Flicker). Flickers are migratory. Most populations in Canada and the extreme northern USA withdraw to the lower 48 states in winter.

Flickers have a gray crown with a prominent red chevron on the back of the head.

 

Flicker Head
Figure 3 - Flicker Head

 

Yellow-shafted Flicker Upper Wing
Figure 4 - Yellow-shafted Flicker Upper Wing

 

The yellow shafts of the feathers and its habit of flicking its bill give the Yellow-shafted Flicker its name.

The yellow shafts of the primary flight feathers is noticeable in this photo. The condition of the primary coverts are useful for determining age (Pyle 1997). Uniform fresh dark brown coverts indicate an adult bird.

 

Flicker Primary Coverts
Figure 5 - Flicker Primary Coverts

 

Yellow-shafted Flicker
Figure 6 - Yellow-shafted Flicker

 

The spectacular underside of the Yellow-shafted Flicker makes it easy to see how this bird got its name. The condition and shape of the tail feathers are useful for determining the age of the Flicker. These shown are of an adult bird.

Once again, the bright yellow colors of the feather can be seen. Also note the fairly sizable 10th primary flight feather at the top right of the photo.

 

Flicker - Underwing
Figure 7 - Flicker - Underwing

 

Nesting Behavior

Flickers prefer to nest in dead trees. Both sexes excavate a cavity from 10 to 90 feet up. If natural cavities are available, however, the Flicker will choose one of these rather than creating one of its own (lazy??) In regions where cavities are in short supply, Flickers will compete with other cavity nesters such as Starlings, Kestrels, and other species of woodpeckers. From 3 to 12 white eggs, incubated by both parents, hatch in about 12 days. Both parents care for the young, who leave the nest in just under a month.

Banding Recoveries

The Bird Banding Lab web site reports that between 1955 and 1997, a total of 54,070 Yellow-shafted Flickers were banded. Of these, 876 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 1.62 %. Banding studies show that Yellow-shafted Flickers are short distance migrants, and can live up to 12 years in the wild.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Conservation Status

Flicker populations appear to be declining. Contributing factors are undoubtedly the loss of suitable nesting sites (dead trees) and competition with other cavity nesting birds. The European Starling is particularly aggressive toward Flickers. I once observed a Starling that grabbed a Flicker on the back with its feet and threw it off of a suet feeder!!! The insect diet of Flickers plays an important role in the control of insects pests, especially ants, caterpillars, termites, beetles, grasshoppers and aphids.

Literature Cited

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part 1. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA. 732 Pp.

Winkler, H., D. A. Christie, and D. Nurney. 1995. Woodpeckers. An identification guide to the woodpeckers of the world. Houghton Mifflin Co., NY. 406 Pp.

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