Northern Flicker

On the wild side—October, 2010

by Tina Mitchell

Once upon a time, North America had 2 major flicker species—the more eastern Yellow-shafted Flicker and the more western Red-shafted Flicker. Each was named for the color of the shafts of their tail and flight feathers, either a lively lemon-yellow or a lovely orange-red.  A couple of decades ago, these species were lumped into Northern Flicker when scientists realized that they interbreed easily wherever they overlap.  In Colorado, our flickers are primarily the red-shafted subspecies.  North America’s 3rd largest woodpecker (behind Ivory-billed—if it isn’t extinct—and Pileated) at roughly 11 – 12” long, it sports a large pointed beak, a grayish brown back with dark bars , an off-white chest and belly with dark black spots, and a black crescent “necklace” on the upper breast.

All creatures have two-part scientific names, reflecting (first) their broader genus and (second) their individual species. The scientific name of the Northern Flicker is Colaptes (Greek for “chisel”) auratus (Latin for “gilded”)—originally assigned to the Yellow-shafted Flickers when they were considered a stand-alone species.  (When species are combined, a new scientific name isn’t always created, just to add to the fun and confusion.)  It’s not clear how the common name “Flicker” evolved.  My favorite theory is that it’s an imitation of one of their many vocalizations.  Heard mostly during breeding season, to me it sounds like a soft, almost squeaky “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a”—or, to some, “flick-a.”  They’re most commonly identified year-round by their strident “kleeee-yer” call or a repetitive “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” during breeding season.

Flickers are part of the vast woodpecker family—and the one most likely to be found hunting for food on the ground rather than in trees.  Woodpeckers have some interesting physical features.   For instance, they use their extremely stiff tails to brace themselves as they move up and down tree trunks.  In addition, most perching birds have 3 toes pointing forward and 1 pointing back to help grip a tree branch.  But most woodpeckers have 2 toes facing forward and 2 facing backward, for better traction when traveling along trunks.  They also have much longer, more curved claws than non-climbing birds do, for greater gripping power.  A flicker has a greatly elongated apparatus that supports and controls the tongue; the sheath that contains the tongue wraps completely around the skull and attaches at the nares—a bird’s nostrils!  This extraordinary arrangement—hummingbirds are the only other birds that have it—allows them to extend their tongues well beyond their beaks.  (That may not sound like much in the human world; but in the bird world, it’s major.)   Flicker tongues are especially sticky, so they can lap up their favorite food—ants.  They also extract beetle larvae by probing the soil with their long beaks.  Since many spend winters in Colorado, they switch to fruit, berries, and seeds when ants and beetles become scarce.  They also appreciate suet offered at feeders during the cold months.

You can see photos and learn more about this species here.

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