Northern flicker

A northern flicker with inset of the nest box

I recently placed a new nest box in my yard, hoping a pair of northern flickers will use it this spring. Flickers are woodpeckers commonly seen in my neighborhood. They are interesting birds since they seem to have an identity crisis, woodpeckers that do not act like other woodpeckers.

Northern flickers are large, brownish birds rather than the typical black and white of other woodpeckers. They carry dark bars on their backs, spots on their bellies and stout, woodpecker-type beaks. They fly in an undulating path, heavy flaps followed by glides.

The local flicker race is the red-shafted flicker and is best identified by their reddish-orange color under wings and tails. Their race name, red-shafted, comes from the reddish-orange shafts of their flight feathers, seen in flight. They have black bibs and the males carry red moustaches.

The identity crisis comes from their not acting much like other woodpeckers. They are commonly seen in urban yards, usually on the ground. They hop around lawns picking up insects. Ants and beetles make up much of their diet. They fly out from trees to nab flying insects like flycatchers and eat winter berries and seeds like robins. Their tail feathers end in spikes to help them cling to tree trunks like other woodpeckers but are often seen perched on limbs.

Near the nest, they utter a “wick-a wick-a wick-a” call. Other times of the year, their call is a rapid “kee kee kee kee”. They also drum on trees or houses.

Flickers excavate new nest holes in diseased or dead trees where the digging is easier. They will use an existing hole but still excavate it to fit their needs. They have even been found nesting in old, earthen burrows originally dug by kingfishers or bank swallows.

Northern flickers are one species with three races: our local red-shafted in the Western North America, the yellow-shafted in the East, and the gilded in Arizona and northern Mexico. Their populations have declined over much of their range since the 1960s. Much of their problem is finding trees where they can gouge out nest holes since so many dead trees are removed. One particular problem is introduced starlings competing with flickers for nesting holes since starlings can drive away flickers.

My new nest box will hopefully be used by a local flicker pair to raise young. It is packed full of wood chips. This not only discourages starlings from taking over the nest box but encourages flickers to use it. They expect to excavate any hole they use, even if it means removing wood chips. Vigilance will also be needed to watch for and remove any starlings that take over the box.

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