Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the backyard... Northern Flicker

Northern FlickerNorthern Flicker, Rood Bridge Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 13 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Like the tale of the blind men describing an elephant, a new birder seeing this bird for the first time may be confused as to the identity of this unusual woodpecker. Will they note the robin-sized brown bird with black bars on the back probing on the ground with a long bill? Will they note the flashing orange wing and tail linings and white rump as it flushes away? Will they see a large white-breasted bird with round black spots and a black crescent on the chest sitting on their fence? Or will a person only "discover" this bird as an unwelcome spring dawn alarm clock, declaring its territory by drumming loudly and incessantly on their home's downspouts or siding?

This widespread woodpecker breeds in woods and forests across North America from the treeline of Alaska and northern Canada south to Cuba and through Mexico. They retreat from northern areas in winter. Two forms formerly considered separate species, Yellow-shafted Flicker and Red-shafted Flicker, were lumped in the 1970's into one species, Northern Flicker.

The breeding form in the Pacific NW is the "Red-shafted" form, with salmon-colored (pinkish-orange) wing and tail linings. The face is gray with brownish crown. Males, such as the one pictured above, have a red malar (moustache) stripe. The form found in eastern North America has yellowish wing and tail linings. The face is brownish with a gray crown and a red nape mark. Males have a black malar stripe. These forms intergrade in the Great Plains and western Canada. Birds from these intergrade zones show odd or contradictory combinations of facial markings or yellow-orange wing linings. These appear in the Pacific Northwest primarily in fall and winter. "Pure" Yellow-shafted Flickers are rare in the West.

Flickers spend as much time on the ground eating ants as they do on trees. You may attract flickers to your backyard feeders by offering suet or a peanuts. Flickers readily accept nest boxes built about 18-24 inches tall, with a floor of 7.25 x 7.25 inches, and an entry hole with a diameter of 2-1/2 inches about 14 inches from the bottom. Place nest boxes in the shade at a height of 8 feet or more. Search the web for "flicker nest box plans."


  1. I love the flickers we have up in Seattle -the Red variety. After I started hanging bird feeders I have been amazed by the shear numbers and variation that show up!

    My other favorites are the Bushtits and the Scrub Jays.

  2. Thank you, Greg, for clearing up my confusion at the "combo" red/yellow flicker in my back yard. I thought I'd discovered a new species! My old bird books are pre-"intergrade".

  3. Hi.... I saw my first northwest flicker to day. He was on our back paver patio pulling out the moss and picking out ants. This area is under a valley oak and we have lots of ants.Last summer we had a red headed woodpecker make a nest in a berch tree and had babies. We live in Stockton, ca.


    1. That's wonderful, Gary! Your "red headed woodpecker" was no doubt a Red-breasted Sapsucker.

  4. The new suet mixture I have been using, seems to attract the Northern Flickers to my Clackamas back yard. Along with the scrub jays (much prettier than their name is), crows, and other birds I've yet to identify, love the seed mixture I've been getting at Wal-Mart. I haven't been able to find the mixture at Fred's or the PetSmart or Petco stores locally. Little robin-type birds with yellow chests having been coming round and I'm also seeing little brown birds with slightly reddish-rust heads and torsos. Don't know what they are.

  5. It's so fun to see big flickers hanging from the suet feeder. I'm guessing your brown birds with red head and breast are House Finches. The yellow, robin-like birds may be Evening Grosbeaks. Goldfinches are tiny.

  6. Pardon if this is a duplicate posting. I am new to the site and it doesn't seem to be working.

    I need help identifying what I think must be a flicker, except that the back of its head is black. Any other pecking birds in the Beaverton area like this? Looks and acts like a flicker in all other ways.

  7. I just saw 2 Northern Flickers and my suet feeder this morning! The Suet Feeder attracts Chickadees, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. This was a real surprise to see a pair of Northern Flickers this morning. Our backyard birdfeeders are 10 years old. We live in Janesville, WI