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The Northern Flicker: One of Few Migrating Woodpecker Species

Mike and Dorothy are avid birders and nature lovers. Dorothy is a former newspaper reporter who has written several nature-related books.

A Northern Flicker in Flight

You can find Northern Flickers in most parts of the United States.  This red-shafted flicker was photographed in our backyard in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

You can find Northern Flickers in most parts of the United States. This red-shafted flicker was photographed in our backyard in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

Where to Find Northern Flickers in the Wild

If you've read all about Northern Flickers (Scientific Name: Colaptes auratus) but are yearning to see one in the wild, you'll need to know where to look. Luckily, they can be found in most parts of North America, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, and parts of Central America.

Northern Flickers are birds in the woodpecker family, and they are one of few species of woodpeckers that migrate. Flickers will leave the northern parts of their range to spend their winter in the south, while those that breed in the southern part of North America choose to remain there during the winter.

Flickers like to spend their time in open areas near trees. If you live in the western part of North America, you might see them near mountain forests all the way up to the treeline. We've been fortunate enough to find them spending time in our own backyard (most of the photos included with this article were taken in our yard). They also love parks, so if you frequent parks and playgrounds, keep an eye out for these stunning birds.

Flicker Objects to Sharing the Birdbath

After a full day of eating ants in our backyard, this Northern Flicker seems to object to sharing the cool water in the birdbath with an intruding pigeon.

After a full day of eating ants in our backyard, this Northern Flicker seems to object to sharing the cool water in the birdbath with an intruding pigeon.

East vs. West: The Differences in Northern Flickers

Although you can see northern flickers all the way across the United States from California to New York, the ones in the east have different colors on their tale and the underside of their wings from the ones in the west. In the east, you will see what is referred to as the “yellow-shafted” variety but in the west they are referred to as the “red-shafted” variety. Unless you are lucky enough to see them flying overhead, however, these colored feathers are hard to see. Sometimes, you might be able to view them if this adventurous bird has its wings or tail spread out.

The mustache on a male northern flicker in the east is black but in the west the mustache is red. Body coloring is also different. Northern flickers in the east have a paler brown body coloring while the ones in the west are gray. The one appearance trait they bth share is the same spotted front and black bib, and the same barred back.

A Northern Flicker's Tongue Is Unique

A Northern Flicker has an extra-long tongue (longer than other woodpeckers') that will extend up to a few inches beyond the tip of its long beak, allowing it to explore and scoop up large numbers of ants from the depths of deep anthills. Northern Flickers have been known to ingest thousands of ants in a single sitting.

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Red-Shafted, Yellow-Shafted Northern Flickers

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Sounds Made by Northern Flickers

The loud, rattling sound made by the Northern Flicker resembles that of a Pileated Woodpecker. It is a somewhat piercing sound that rises and falls in volume multiple times, lasting about five to seven seconds. If you are in an area where Northern Flickers are found, you will likely hear their sound in the spring and early summer, times when they are pairing together and establishing their territories for nesting.

Nesting

The preferred nesting place for Northern Flickers is in diseased or dead tree trunks, although they sometimes prefer to nest in the larger branches of trees like trembling aspens, which are subject to decay and often rotted, making it easy for them to be excavated by the birds. Most woodpecker species do not reuse the nesting areas that they (or other species) have used in previous years but that is not so for Northern Flickers, who often choose to return to the nests that they previous excavated and used.

Both the female and the male Northern Flicker help with the excavation of the nest, which is usually about 10-15 off the ground but on rare instances can be considerably higher. The nest is created with an entrance that is about three to four inches wide, while the cavity is about a foot deep. The bottom section of the cavity is wider to allow room for eggs and the incubating parent. The only thing inside the cavity is a bed of wood chips upon which the eggs and chicks will rest until they are about 17 days old, at which time they will begin clinging to the wall of the nest rather than remaining on the cavity floor.

Males and Females: How to Tell the Difference

The most obvious difference between the sexes of the Northern Flickers is that the females do not have the black mustache that is prominent on the males. The plumage of male and female northern flickers are very similar. On their breast feathers, both have a U-shaped black patch, and they both sport the black bars on their wings. Black spots appear on the belly and chest of both the male and female flickers. When they are in flight, both have a visible white spot above the tail and colored feathers on the underside of their wings and tail, although those feathers are yellow on the birds in the east and red on the ones in the west.

Map Shows Where Northern Flickers Found

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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