Return of Bird of the Week: Northern Flicker

Male Northern Flicker, McCall, Idaho

That’s enough South American woodpeckers. Let’s have a look at some North American birds for a while.

The Northern Flicker – another woodpecker that isn’t called a “woodpecker” – is one of the more common North American bird species, with a range that extends from the the Brooks Range in Alaska, across central Canada and deep into Mexico. It’s found in all 49 North American states, most of Canada and most of the states of Mexico.

Female Northern Flicker dining on Virginia Creeper berries, Boise, Idaho

One of the reasons for this species’ success is that it is a generalist, adapting to a number of habitats and a wide range of foods. In this photo a female is munching on Virginia Creeper berries in WC’s Boise backyard. WC has also watched them forage for bugs on the ground, hawk insects in flight, drill for beetles and termites in trees and nibble on the occasional french fry in a MacDonald’s parking lot.

Like many, but not all, woodpeckers, the males and females are different: note the red malar strip on the males.

Northern Flickers are enthusiastic nest cavity excavators, and have been recognized as a “keystone” species , creating nest cavities used by many other bird species, ranging from all three species of bluebirds to chickadees to tree swallows and wrens. WC has seen a very uncommon Gray-headed Chickadee nesting in a Northern Flicker nest cavity in the headwaters of the Canning River, on the north side of the Brooks Range.

Male Northern Flicker hunting insect larvae, Boise, Idaho

There’s a lot of excitement among ornithologists over the Red-shafted/Yellow-shafted Flicker issue. At one time, the consensus was they were two different species; now they are recognized as color variations, not even necessarily true subspecies, although that view does not have universal acclaim among bird researchers. Birds of North America recognizes nine (!) subspecies, for example. The problem is that in a narrow, north-south band in the Great Plains red-shafted and yellow-shafted hybridize. WC declines to get involved. These three photos are definitely of Red-shafted Northern Flickers. Just because a bird is exceptionally well-studied doesn’t mean it is free of controversy.

Handsome, noisy and adaptable, as well as pretty tolerant of humans, the Northern Flicker is a species of Least Concern

For more bird photographs, please visit Frozen Feather Images.

2 thoughts on “Return of Bird of the Week: Northern Flicker

  1. Roger Tory Peterson on encountering a Flicker at age 11: “I poked it with my finger; instantly, this inert thing jerked its head around, looked at me wildly, then took off in a flash of gold. It was like resurrection. What had seemed dead was very much alive,” he said. “Ever since then, birds have seemed to me the most vivid expression of life.”
    My wife & I watched a pair cavorting around the cabin for the first time last year, and it was an equally transcendent experience for me – such spectacular beauty.


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