Northern Flickers are large woodpeckers. They have brown bodies with black scallops on the wings and back, and a black crescent-shaped marking on the chest. Flickers also have a patch of white feathers on the rump. The tail is white with black bars and a black tip. There are two color variations: Yellow-Shafted Flickers and Red-shafted Flickers. These names refer to the colors of the feathers on the undersides of the birds’ wings and tails. Cosley Zoo exhibits a Yellow-shafted Flicker. Yellow-shafted Flickers have red feathers on the back of their necks, and the male has a black “mustache” that runs from its bill down to its cheek. Females do not have these mustaches.
A Northern Flicker averages 30-35 cm (11.8-13.8 inches) in length. Its wingspan is 45-53 cm (18-21 inches).
- A woodpecker’s foot contains two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes. This helps the woodpecker to get a good grip on a tree trunk. Other small, perching birds have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backwards to help them grasp branches. The male’s bright red color helps him to attract a mate, while the female’s drab coloring enables her to hide from predators while nesting.
- Woodpeckers also have stiff tails which help to prop them up when they are pecking at a tree.
- Northern Flickers have a thinner, more curved beak than other woodpeckers. This beak shape helps them to extract ants from the ground.
- The Flicker’s bristly tongue can be extended 1.5 inches beyond the tip of its bill, allowing the bird to easily grasp ants.
- The Northern Flicker’s coloration allows it to camouflage well in the woodlands it inhabits.
- Flickers and other woodpeckers have stiff feathers growing over their nostrils to keep out sawdust and dirt generated by pecking.
Northern Flickers eat a variety of insects, but consume primarily ants. They also eat a variety of berries, seeds, and nuts, especially in the winter when insects are more difficult to find. At Cosley Zoo, the Flicker is fed a processed insectivore (insect-eater) diet, fruits and vegetables, sunflower seeds, and mealworms.
The breeding season runs from February through July. Flickers make nests in telephone poles and holes in trees. They will also utilize nest boxes provided by humans. A female Flicker lays 5-8 white eggs per clutch (group of eggs). Both parents share the responsibility for incubating the eggs (which takes 11-16 days before hatching) and caring for the young birds by feeding them regurgitated food. Flickers raise 1-2 broods per year.
Shelter and Space Needs
Flickers live in open areas near trees, such as forest edges, agricultural lands, and residential areas. Northern Flickers are found throughout the United States and live in Illinois year-round. Others that live in more northern regions such as Alaska and Canada migrate further south for the winter.
The Northern Flicker’s lifespan is thought to average just a few years, although they do have the potential to live up to 9 years.
Importance to Man
Northern Flickers consume insect pests. They also provide other species with homes, as abandoned Flicker nests are later used by squirrels and other birds.
- Unlike other woodpeckers, Flickers are often found on the ground, since they dig for ants and ground-dwelling beetles.
- The word Colaptes in the Northern Flicker’s scientific name means “peck”. The word auratus means “gold” and refers to the color on the underside of the bird’s wing.
- The Northern Flicker is thought to have the longest tongue of any North American bird.
- Flickers take part in a process called “anting”, in which they rub ants over their bodies, releasing formic acid. Scientists are not sure whether they do this to help control parasites, provide comfort during new feather growth, or just make the ants taste better.
- The Northern Flicker is known by over 100 common names including the harry-wicket, gaffer woodpecker, yarrup, and heigh-ho.