Year of the Bird Series: December – Northern Flicker

Year of the Bird Series: December – Northern Flicker

Article by: Chris Harris, Environmental Physiology Technician at the University of Windsor

As a birder whose enthusiasm has often exceeded his competency, I have always loved species that could be unambiguously identified and sexed both in the hand and field. Between the distinctive call, hefty size, bright yellow-shafted feathers, white rump, and mustachioed males, the yellow-shafted northern flicker (Colaptes auratus auratus) is my favourite example of a bird that does all the work for me. They possess all the features that make woodpeckers particularly interesting and easy to talk about such as their two forward and two backward zygodactyl toe arrangement or their long sticky tongue that can protrude well beyond their already long bill, while also possessing their own unique peculiarity in being a ground foraging woodpecker. They use their sizeable, pointed beak to hammer and probe the soil for ants, rapidly drum on anything with good resonance, or create and expand tree cavities.  Also, like all other woodpeckers, they are always willing to enthusiastically use their beak to point out deficiencies in bander grip technique, a service that I always appreciate even if it isn’t enjoyable.

Three female northern flickers modelling the full suite of red, yellow, and black markings – Photo by D. Ludkin
A male northern flicker with his cavity – Photo by B. Fotheringham

Our local yellow-shafted variant is just one of 11 currently recognized subspecies of northern flicker that all fit into one of four groups defined by whether their feathers are yellow- or red-shafted and the degree of barring on their feathers. While the total distribution of all northern flickers covers most of North and Central America, the yellow-shafted northern flicker is the figurehead of the yellow-shafted, less barred group that covers a huge territory from Newfoundland to Alaska in the north, down to Florida and Texas in the south. All sub-species, along with the related gilded flickers, can interbreed where their ranges overlap, and hybrids can have the features of either parent or different intermediate traits. This positions the northern flicker as an interesting study in how complicated taxonomy and systematics can be and how difficult it can be to decide the differences between species and subspecies.

It is impossible to talk about woodpeckers without discussing tree cavities since their iconic role is the basis of their name. Flickers are important members of an exclusive group of birds called excavators, who are known to create tree cavities. These cavities are a critical reusable resource in treed habitats and their availability is a strong limiting factor since they support up to 30% of vertebrate biodiversity in some forests. While cavities are usually formed by damage and decay throughout most of the world, excavators are responsible for as much as 77% of all nesting cavities in North America. As one of only two remaining North American species of woodpecker that are large-bodied enough to produce cavities with large entrance holes, flicker cavities are a hot commodity for all types of secondary cavity nesters that cannot create their own cavities like bats, squirrels and other rodents, weasels, ducks, owls, kestrels, and numerous songbirds. Some the best cavities have been observed to support a whole host of species for as long as 20 years after a northern flicker originally created and used it. When combined with their interrelationship with wood rot and fungi, this positions the northern flicker as keystone architects of forest life that sit at the top of the cavity-web in much the same way that beavers shape wetlands.

The characteristic yellow feather shafts and white rump that make the northern flicker easy to identify in the field – Photo by E. Gosnell

Unfortunately, this also points to one of the threats to woodpeckers globally, in that they are very sensitive to forest quality, the removal of old-growth and dead wood, and competition for cavities with species such as the European starling. Northern flickers use cavities throughout the year as they spend up to 90% of their nights roosting in a cavity, including during migration, so changes in forest management and urbanization are important throughout their range. As ground foragers, they prefer open woodland, forest edge, and disturbed habitat but are also particularly susceptible to pesticides and insect declines. While they are considered well adapted to human disturbance since they are frequently seen at bird feeders and breed readily in both urban and rural settings, they are nonetheless showing significant declines in population size. The causes are not yet understood, but the northern flicker is yet another worrying example of a common, widespread, human-tolerant bird that is in decline.                                        

Finally, the male northern flicker serves as an excellent role-model for the modern millennial dad. Aside from the long black mustache that even Tom Selleck should be jealous of and their ability to build a home for their family in just two weeks without tools, flickers demonstrate “reversed” breeding roles. Males invest more heavily in offspring care than females by spending more effort constructing and defending the nest and more time incubating and brooding young. When combined with their ability to perform their ritualized Wicka dance, male northern flickers seem to have all the skills necessary to be a hip dad on-the-go. As an easy to observe but charismatic and complex species, the yellow-shafted northern flicker presents a solid case for the perfect final species for Ruthven’s Year of the Bird Series.

A male northern flicker showing off his black mustachial region and the bill he uses to create cavities in trees and unwary banders – Photo by N. Furber