Thursday, June 13, 2024

A male northern flicker in Assembly Square on May 17, 2020. Males sport a black “mustache.” (Photo: Cody Matheson)

Although northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are woodpeckers, they look and act differently from other woodpeckers. Most woodpeckers probe for insects in trees and bark, but flickers often feed on the ground, probing with their slightly curved beak for ants and insects in the dirt. And while other woodpeckers are black and white, flickers are brown and gray with black spots. Flickers in the East have lemon-yellow feathers on the underside of the wings and tail.

Northern flickers are widespread, so they’ve earned many nicknames, most based on their color or behavior: yellowhammer, golden-winged woodpecker, partridge woodpecker and yucker. They make a repeated note that can be heard from more than half a mile away, commonly written as wick, wick, wick or yuck, yuck, yuck.

A pair of flickers prepare a nest in Strawberry Hill on May 5, 2022. (Photo: Richard George)

About half of a flicker’s diet is ants. A flicker will scratch away leaves to find an ant nest on the ground, then hammer at the soil to break into the underground colony. As the ants stream out, the bird laps up the ants with its barbed, sticky tongue, finishing by inserting its long beak into the nest to consume any larvae or eggs inside. Flickers also devour flies, beetles and other insects and seeds, fruits, berries and nuts, especially in the winter.

Each northern flicker has a distinctive red shape on the back of its head. (Photo: Richard George)

Flickers drum on objects to communicate with others and to defend their territory, when they try to be as loud a noise as possible – which is why they sometimes become a nuisance by drumming on reverberating metal objects. In 1901, according to the Cambridge Tribune, a flicker caused a consternation at a local school:

A flicker … by accident found out that there is a cover made of copper on the top of the big ventilator of the Gilman school on Concord avenue. . . . He found, also, that the uppermost bricks of the ventilating shaft were covered with tin, and knowing that tin is a good metal for making his sort of music, he established himself securely under the copper cover and began rattling the tin with his long beak. The sound pleased him more than it did the scores of teachers and pupils below, for the ventilating shaft is connected with every room in the building, and every rap of his beak was carried further than he thought 

Every girl who was extracting cube roots, or Sanscrit roots, or who was simply adding columns of figures, found that she could do nothing except in time with the cadences above. Work was impossible. The director was appealed to. The janitor was found. An ornithologist was consulted. The latter said that … there would be no relief so long as he lived. “Shoot him,” said he, “that is the only recourse …”

Appeal was made to the police … [An officer] agreed that the plan of shooting was the best. Here the janitor interposed that if shot on the top of the ventilator, a hole would be made that would let water through … He suggested that the entire top of the ventilator be covered with wire netting, and that peaceful solution seems to have satisfied all.

Note: The Gilman School (later called the Cambridge School for Girls), prepared girls for Radcliffe College. Helen Keller studied there for a year. In 1931, the school moved to the suburbs and became the Cambridge School of Weston.

In fall and winter, northern flickers eat more berries than in summer. (Photo: Tom Murray)

In April or May, the male and female flicker work together to hollow out a nest cavity in a tree or repair their nest from the previous season. They line the cavity with newly excavated wood chips. On top of the wood chips, the female lays six to nine eggs. For two weeks until the eggs hatch, the birds take turns warming the eggs during the day, but the male incubates them at night. 

Baby flickers eat their weight in insects each day. Because it would take forever for the parents to transport ants one by one to their ravenous youngsters, the parents instead gobble up as many ants and insects as possible. When their belly is full, they return to the nest, jab their long beak down an open mouth and pump their stomach contents into the baby’s throat with an up and down movement resembling a piston. The skin of a newborn is so translucent that an observer could see the line of food stretching down the throat.

A female northern flicker displays her yellow underwings. In the west, the underwings are red. (Photo: Tom Murray)

When the hatchling are about 18 days old, they use their needle-sharp claws to cling to the inside of the tree cavity, awaiting their parents’ return. Eventually, they clamber all the way up to the opening; at this point the parents feed the youngsters from outside the tree cavity. The parents attend to each of the chicks about once per hour. In three to four weeks, the fledglings leave the nest.

In the late summer or early fall, when fledglings are stronger and molting season is over, flickers begin to gather in small groups. Because they cannot find food when the ground is covered in snow, flickers in Alaska and Canada migrate south along the Atlantic coast, where they feast on insects in seaweed along the shore. Unlike many other birds, they migrate during the day. 

A male northern flicker uses its sharp claws to cling to a tree, April 10, 2024. (Photo: Tom Murray)

According to ornithologist William Brewster (1906): 

Flickers winter with us so regularly and commonly that as many as five or six may be seen in the suburbs of Cambridge, or a little further to the westward, during a morning walk in December, January or February … When the Parkman’s apple tree in our garden bears heavily, flickers visit it almost daily throughout the winter to feast on its tiny apples – scarce larger than blueberries.

A northern flicker displays a flash of yellow in Cambridge’s Strawberry Hill on Jan. 12, 2022. (Photo: Richard George)

Some years, many New England flickers will overwinter in our region. In other years, however, almost all of our flickers fly to southern Atlantic-coast states. Peak flicker southern migration in Massachusetts occurs during the second half of September.

From their rhythmical drumming to their helpful ant control, northern flickers are visually and aurally distinctive. If you happen to catch a glimpse of a flashy yellow flight overhead or hear a ricocheting ratatat, you may be in the presence of a northern flicker.

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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.