Nature’s notebook

The northern flicker, a woodpecker that migrates

A northern flicker.

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is native to most of North America, parts of Central America, Cuba and the Cayman islands. It is one of a few species of woodpeckers that migrate. Flickers in the northern part of their range move south for the winter. It is a medium-sized woodpecker, brown with black spots and bars on their body and a white rump patch that stands out when the bird is in flight. The birds have a shock of red on the back of their heads, and males have a black (in the east) or red (in the west) mustached stripe at the base of their beaks.

In the east, the undersides of the wing and tail feathers are yellow. In the west, they are red. This is probably why northern flickers in the east are also called yellowhammer woodpeckers. There’s a classic Appalachian trout fly that used to use the feathers of northern flickers called a Yellow Hammer or Yellarhammer fly. It’s not legal to take a northern flicker, so today to tie the fly you can get synthetic feathers that look similar. You can read more about them and learn how to tie them in Roger Lowe's Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains.  Flowe is from Waynesville.

Northern flickers eat mainly on the ground, the only woodpecker that does so. Their diet consists largely of ants and beetles. They eat other insects including caterpillars, butterflies, flies, and termites. They have a slightly curved bill that helps them eat, as well as a long tongue that can extend up to 2 inches beyond their beak. They will catch insects in flight. Flickers will also eat berries and seeds, especially in wintertime.

Northern flickers nest in holes in trees but have been known to use old earthen burrows excavated and abandoned by belted kingfishers or bank swallows. Both male and female birds feed the young by regurgitation. The young are ready to leave the nest four weeks after hatching, although they are still fed by their parents. As they mature, they learn to follow them to good foraging sites.

They drum on trees to communicate and to declare their territory. A male will also defend nesting territory with calls and aggressive displays, including swinging the head back and forth, flicking its wings and spreading its tail. Like most woodpeckers, their flight is undulating, with periods of flapping interspersed with periods of gliding.

Northern flickers are widespread and common, but since 1966 there has been a total decline of 49 percent in their numbers according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9 million. They are a species of least concern on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list. Introduced starlings compete with flickers for nest cavities. They are found in open habitats near trees and are frequently spotted in yards and parks, so keep an eye out for them. They are beautiful to see and hear.