Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Northern Flicker is a handsome woodpecker

By Lorraine McFarland
Past President
Ozark Rivers Audubon

Recently I had a call from someone asking me to identify a bird based on his verbal description. Often when this happens the description is much too general for me to be able to come up with a confident answer – I usually ask the caller to e-mail me a photo.

This time there was no need for a photo and I was glad because my ego suffers a little when I have to say, “I don’t know!” The bird was our very distinctive and recognizable Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus, a member of the woodpecker family. The caller was surprised to learn it was a woodpecker, because, unlike its relatives, this bird forages most often on the ground, where it finds the ants that it favors.

We have many colorful and entertaining woodpeckers here in the Ozarks but this one is very handsome! Northern Flickers (NOFL) are about 12 inches bill tip to tail tip. The brown back and wings have black bars and the lighter-colored breast and belly have obvious black spots. Also obvious is the black crescent on the breast. In flight the rump is bright white and the undersides of the wings and tail are either yellow or red.

The male of the yellow-shafted race has a black “mustache”; the male of the red-shafted race has a red one. Both sexes of the yellow-shafted race have a red crescent on the nape of the neck. Wouldn’t it be nice if all birds were so easy to identify! The song is a loud wick-wick-wick-wick or fast flicka-flicka-flicka-flicka. You can hear it on line at .

Courtship for these birds is a raucous affair with 3 or more birds of both sexes calling, drumming, chasing, and flashing those colorful wings and tails. NOFLs are not efficient as others in the woodpecker family when it comes to carpentry and it takes a pair 1 to 2 weeks to excavate a nest cavity in a tree or post. Some will nest in Bank Swallow cavities or even in haystacks or nest boxes.

NOFLs will often return to the same nest location year after year. A clutch consists of 5-8 eggs that will hatch in 11-14 days, and the young will leave the nest about 25-28 days later. Both parents tend to the young throughout the breeding season.

Flickers hang around the Ozarks year-round, so if you see a large, colorful bird drilling the ground with its powerful beak, you can bet it is a Northern Flicker.

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