The Northern Flicker: Avian Traveler Just Passing Through

The Northern Flicker: Avian Traveler Just Passing Through

It was early October last year when our back yard was visited by a large flock of birds that at first I didn’t recognize. They looked to be a bit larger than robins and were busy gleaning sunflower seed drops from under the feeder and poking the grass for insects. They seemed to be everywhere in the yard and likely stopped in for a snack and rest on their way through during their fall migration.

I grabbed my binoculars and opened the back door to get a better look but startled them. As if in unison they all launched off to nearby trees, but I got a quick count of about 40 birds. Their retreating flight revealed a flash of white on the rump of each bird that confirmed my suspicion – a flock of northern flickers was on a brief stopover and our yard provided the perfect respite.

I’ve seen these beautiful woodpeckers many times, but never before in such a large group. They live in the region all year, but they also migrate from places further north, bringing the flocks through our region. I did some reading on them and share this with you in hopes you too may see the beautiful flicker this season as they pass through.

One of my favorite nature writers is John Hanson Mitchell. Here is a quote perfectly describing the northern flicker from his book “A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard.”

“The flicker is one of the few migratory woodpeckers. It can be recognized by the black moustache markings near its bill (in males and young females) and its black neckband. It is also one of the easier birds to identify in flight: it has a wonderful dipping, roller-coaster flying pattern that is pretty much unmistakable and reveals the bird’s brilliant white rump patch. Despite the fact that it is a member of the woodpecker family, one of the favorite foods of the flicker is the ground dwelling ant. You will often see flickers hunting ants on the lawn, their heads tilted off to the side to get a better view of the action.”

I did a bit more reading about flickers and found they eat more ants than any other North American bird. In fact, a biologist once found the remains of up to 5,000 ants in the stomach of a flicker.

The northern flicker – Colaptes auratus is a medium-sized woodpecker about 12 inches long with a tan face and buff to gray underside and black spots. East of the Mississippi is the yellow-shafted flicker, recognized by its yellow underwings and undertail, a red nape crescent with a gray crown, and a black mustache on the male. The red-shafted flicker of the western United States has reddish underwings and undertail and a red mustache.

Northern flickers are found in more open country near forest edges, large trees, parks and residential areas. Like other woodpeckers, flickers nest in trees and will excavate a hole in a dead or diseased tree trunk or large branch. The hole is about 3 inches in diameter and the nest cavity more than 12 inches deep. They incubate up to 10 white eggs for 12 days, and the young are ready to fledge in about 4 weeks.

Along with ants, northern flickers eat beetles they get from the ground as well as fruits, berries and seeds during winter months. It is the nutritious ant larva that they crave when excavating soil the way other woodpeckers drill into wood with their beaks. Like other woodpeckers they have a long tongue that can extend up to 2 inches to catch their prey.

One of the best sources of information on bird species is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website All About Birds. Cornell also tracks current population trends for bird species. Here is what they report on the numbers of northern flickers throughout the country.

“Northern Flickers are widespread and common, but numbers decreased by almost 1.5 percent per year between 1966 and 2012, resulting in a cumulative decline of 49 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9 million with 78 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 42 percent in Canada, and 8 percent in Mexico. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline.”

Here is a link to the All About Birds website information on the Northern Flicker.

The decline in flickers, as well as other bird species is certainly a concern and makes me feel fortunate so many of them visited our backyard last year. A sharp decline in many bird species has been reported in recent years with loss of habitat as the overriding reason. Here in Connecticut, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is updating the Connecticut Bird Atlas with results to be published soon. You can learn more about the Connecticut Bird Atlas from their website at:

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be on the lookout for the return of the flickers. While they don’t usually visit bird feeders, perhaps they’ll stop by our bird baths for a quick dip and drink before heading on their way. I’ll scan along the forest edge of our backyard and field and hope to see their distinctive white rump patch and roller-coaster flight pattern. I’ll listen for their loud ringing call as a not-so-gentle reminder of seasonal change. I’ll take their cue that the cycle of life revolves unending with the rising and setting sun.

How lucky we are to be living in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and so many others as we enjoy it, care for it and pass it on. Even if, like the flicker, we’re only passing through.

Information for this column was gleaned from “A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard,” by John Hanson Mitchell, “The Outside Story,” Volumes I and II published by Northern Woodlands, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website All About Birds.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at


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