Also known as Pic flamboyant in French, Northern Flickers measure 11 to 12 inches long with a wingspan between 16-1/2 to 20 inches wide. About half as big as a Hairy Woodpecker, you can find flickers along the edge of wooded areas, nesting in scattered trees found in open fields or even near the edges of marshes, in city parks or suburbs.
Depending on how far flickers migrate, you may be surprised to see flickers at your feeders. While they are not common visitors at feeders, they have been known to eat fruit, sunflower seed, Nyjer seed, and nuts or suet when other food sources are scarce during the cold winter months. These migratory birds venture south for the winter, while a select few travel farther north with a range stretching from Alaska down to the panhandle of Texas and across the U.S.
Part of the woodpecker family, both the Red-shafted and the Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers used to be considered different species. The Red-shafted lives in the western U.S., while the Yellow-shafted lives in the eastern U.S. and can be found as far west as Texas. The key identifying feature of each species is the bright coloring under their wings. As you can guess, the Red-shafted has a wide breadth of red under its wings, while the Yellow-shafted has yellow. Other important features to keep in mind are the noticeable malars, which is another term for “mustache.” On the Red-shafted, the red malar on the male looks like a dribble of red paint, as though the bird got caught eating it and some spilled down his “chin” (or at least that’s what it looks like to me!) On the Yellow-shafted, the males have a black malar instead of red. Yet both the female and the male Yellow-shafted have a bright red crescent on their nape, similar to the Red-shafted except it’s located further back.
Both species of Northern Flickers have bright white on their rumps, which makes it easy to identify them in flight. Since ants are the flicker’s favorite food, you’re most likely going to see them fly up from the ground, giving you an excellent chance to see the under-color of their wings and be able to easily identify the species. Flickers have a long, barbed tongue which can dart out 2 inches to grab beetles and other insects hiding in the dirt for a hearty, protein-rich snack.
Since flickers are primarily found in wooded areas, how can you attract them to your feeders? During the winter when insects are scarce, flickers may be seen eating insect flavored suet cakes and other high-energy foods at feeders. Use a suet cake feeder with an extended tail prop to give them better balance while they eat and encourage them to stay a bit longer. Or you can set up a flicker house in your yard to provide shelter against bitter cold winds. Once breeding season arrives, generally from March through June, you can enjoy watching these beautiful spotted birds raise a family right in your backyard!
What kind of flicker have you seen in your yard? How did you attract them? Did you use food or a flicker birdhouse? Let us know in the comments.
“Northern Flicker,” All About Birds, 2015. 16 Feb. 2016: <https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Flicker/id>.