Birding 101: three things to keep in mind
Places in western Montana to view birds
More articles about birds in the Bitterroot
Red-naped Sapsucker article and photos
- See slideshow of Northern Flicker
The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a medium to large woodpecker in the best-known family, woodpecker (Picidae), of the order of Piciformes. It is native to most of North America, parts of Central America, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands. It is one of the few woodpecker species that migrate and it is the only woodpecker that commonly feeds on the ground.
At 11 to 12 inches in length, wingspan of 16.5 to 20 inches and weighing from 4 to 5 1/2 ounces; the only woodpecker that is larger is the Pileated.
An overall description: The back is gray brown with dark bars. The underside is off white with small black spots. It has a black crescent on the chest and a white rump. The wings have yellow or red patches which are noticeable in flight. The tail is black on the top, eyes are black and feet are gray.
There are two color forms; the Red-shafted Colaptes (Colaptes auratus cafer) and the Yellow-shafted (Colaptes auratus auratus). The Red-shafted form is found in the Montana and the Bitterroot and the western parts of the range. It has bright a red central shaft and undersides of wing and tail feathers, gray face and throat, black crown, red stripe on face of male, brown stripe on face of female. The Yellow-shafted form is found in the eastern and northern parts of the range. It has a yellow central shaft and underside of wing and tail feathers, tan face and throat, gray crown, red crescent on back of neck, black stripe on face of male. Where the red- and yellow-shafted flickers overlap, ornithologists have been intrigued by hybrids of the two subspecies for more than a century.
Juvenile are similar to adults but duller.
Although it can climb up the trunks of trees and hammer on wood like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers to find food on the ground. It eats fruit and seeds, but ants are its main food. The flicker digs in the dirt to find them and uses its long barbed tongue to lap up the ants.
Flickers prefer fairly open habitats near trees, including woodlands, forest edges, yards, and parks. In Montana you can find them in mountain forests all the way up to treeline near alpine areas. In the Bitterroot, Northern Flickers often migrate south or to lower elevations for the winter.
Both sexes help with nest excavation, usually in a dead tree. The entrance hole is about 3 inches in diameter and the cavity is 13 to 16 inches deep. The cavity widens at bottom making room for eggs and the incubating adult. Inside, the cavity is bare except for a bed of wood chips for the eggs and chicks to rest on. The female lays a clutch of three to twelve white eggs. Once chicks are about 17 days old, they begin clinging to the cavity wall rather than lying on the floor.
The Flicker is a keystone species – one whose presence and activities allows for the survival of other animals. Without it many other cavity nesting wildlife could disappear or decline.
The Northern Flicker is a primary cavity nester – capable of excavating their own nest sites with their powerful beak. There are many cavity nesting species, but most cannot excavate their own nest cavities and are known as secondary cavity-nesters. The Northern Flicker excavates a new nest site every year. It prefers to use softer woods such as decaying cottonwoods. When the cavities are abandoned, other species move in.
Flicker holes typically range from 2.5 to 3.5 inches in diameter, exactly the right size of cavity that many secondary cavity nesters such as flying squirrels need for their nests. It is just large enough for the secondary cavity nester’s body to pass through while limiting the chances of predator’s like hawks from gaining access. Another secondary cavity nester is the American Kestrel. Almost all American Kestrel nests are found in large (> 20 inches) diameter snags that have an abandoned nest cavity made by Northern Flickers. The abandoned nests of smaller woodpeckers such as the Hairy, Three-toed, or Downy are not big enough. The abandoned nests of the Pileated Woodpecker are too big.
Other species that depend on abandoned flicker nests are small owls, Bluebirds, Tree and Violet-green swallows, red squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, and small rodents. Even the Bufflehead duck uses their nest cavities. Without flickers to excavate nest cavities, many of these species would disappear from an area.
Northern Flickers make a loud, rolling rattle with a piercing tone that rises and falls in volume several times. The call lasts 7 or 8 seconds and is very similar to the Pileated Woodpecker call Listen to a selection of recordings of songs and calls at the Xeno-canto website.
For more info:
See the links below for identification guides, where to look for the birds and interesting facts.
- Northern Flicker – a common and permanent Bitterroot resident. It is found in the Bitterroot Valley near the Bitterroot River, open grass and shrub lands, mountain streams and lakes, forest edges, dry and moist forests.
All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology with sounds
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Field Guide description, habitat maps and more
- Merle’s SmugMug photo site – more photos in higher resolution and slideshow format Northern Flicker photos – by Merle Ann Loman
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