Red-winged Flying Anteater of the West
- Last Updated: September 28, 2016
“Wicka-wicka-wicka, Flicker!” This bird is often heard before it's seen. When observed, you're more likely to flush this bird up from the ground or see it perched horizontally high on a tree limb. The Northern Flicker (NOFL) is a member of the woodpecker family with some very different feather patterns and behaviors from most of its pecking cousins.
There are distinct East and West races of Northern Flickers. Our West race, known as the Red-shafted, begins mostly west of the Rocky Mountains up the coast into Alaska and down covering Mexico. They have red underwing and tail feathers. The shafts of their primary flight feathers are also red. Their face is mostly gray with a tan cap. The male has a red mustache or malar stripe. The East race is called Yellow-shafted. Their range is east of the Rocky Mountains, most of Canada and south to Cuba. They are yellow under the tail and wings, with yellow shafts on the primary flight feathers. They have tan faces with a gray cap and a red bar at the nape or back of their necks. The males have a black malar stripe. All Northern Flickers are light brown overall with black speckles, a black breast crescent, black tail feathers above and a white rump often seen in flight. Their long pointed bill is slightly decurved. There is an overlap where East meets West. Both races can be found in parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Northwest Texas. The races are known to hybridize resulting in a mix of traits, such as a Red-shafted with a black malar stripe.
For a woodpecker, the NOFL is loud. It ranks just under the Pileated Woodpecker for volume. Its repertoire of sounds includes up to six different calls with three most common phonetic texts of flicker, wicka-wicka-wicka, and kleer. A sound producing behavior of the male NOFL is drumming on metal objects to attract a mate or establish territory. The downspouts of home rain gutters, and chimney guards or flashings are favorite choices; much to the annoyance of the homeowner. No wonder a collective group of flickers is called a “guttering.” Males will also duel with their bills on horizontal tree limbs while the female watches nearby. This behavior includes head bobbing, weaving, jousting and spreading of tail feathers.
A mating pair will work together on excavating a cavity for nesting. The site is usually selected by the male. The preferred site is a snag. A new cavity takes about 12 days from start to finish. NOFLs are very flexible with types of cavities. They will use poles, posts, banks, buildings and nesting boxes. Sometimes they will nest in old Kingfisher and Swallow bank cavities. This adaptability helps the Northern Flicker keep its population stable. Their nesting sites are often perennial. The cavity is bare except for a lining of wood chips. The female will lay 5 to 8 white eggs. Both sexes will brood. The incubation lasts 11-13 days. Once the nestling are 17 days old, they will cling to the walls of the cavity before they fledge. Occasionally, a second NOFL female will lay a clutch into the cavity of an existing nest. Because both the male and female of the monogamous pair incubate the eggs, large broods can be successful.
Ants make up 45% of their diet. They eat more ants than any other bird. Therefore, Northern Flickers are often seen on the ground probing their bills into the soil. Their barbed tongues can extend up to 2 inches searching for ants. They also eat beetles and other flying insects. They prefer open forest habitats. In winter they switch to berries, seeds and nuts. Occasionally, NOFLs will visit winter bird feeders, including suet feeders. NOFLs in the northern most portion of their range of Alaska and Canada will migrate into the lower 48 states. They are the only migrating woodpecker.
Look for Northern Flickers on the edge of woodlands throughout Skagit County year-round.