Now and then there is an image so compelling that it reappears in your mind’s eye of its own accord, uninvited. For me recently it was the sight of a Northern Flicker on the bare branch of a dead tree in the glow of the setting sun. I gazed and gazed. I have since found myself channeling that famous couch potato, William Wordsworth, for oft when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, the image on my inward eye is the Northern Flicker, handsome dude.
Name: The Northern Flicker is one of the 22 species of woodpeckers found in North America. Its binomial is Colaptes auratus where the genus name Colaptes is from the Greek word “colapt” meaning to peck. Of all the birds that would qualify for this name, I don’t know what the Flicker did to end up with the rights. Maybe one pecked a taxonomist. The species name “auratus” means golden and describes the underwing color. There are two races of Northern Flicker, one where the flight feathers have red shafts and the other with yellow shafts. The one we see here, and in all of eastern North America, is the yellow-shafted race. They hybridize where their ranges overlap. A closely related species, the Gilded Flicker, also in the genus Colaptes, is resident only in southern Arizona and western Mexico.
When and where you might see one: It is possible to see a Northern Flicker in Carlisle any month of the year. The species is a “partial” migrant which means that only those birds that nested in more northern latitudes will migrate south for the winter. The others stay put. Massachusetts is close to the northern edge of the year-round territory and as you can tell from the Carlisle Christmas Bird Count chart, (see below, far right column) we do see them here in the winter. In the 37 years of the count data, we have had a seven-year dry spell, followed by increasing numbers and now we seem to be in another dry spell. Sometimes birds that we suspect are here don’t make an appearance on the official day of the bird count.
Your chances of seeing one are probably best in the fall when the northern nesters are migrating through. Unlike other woodpeckers, this is one that you are likely to see on the ground hammering into the dirt seeking ants and beetles. Their tongues are long enough to extend their reach two inches beyond the end of the bill. This means they can easily snare tasty treats like ant larvae in the ground.
Distinguishing characteristics: The Northern Flicker is fairly large; bigger than a robin and bigger than a blue jay but not as big as the huge Pileated Woodpecker. The predominant color is a pale brown which looks golden in the late afternoon sun. There are distinctly marked black bars on the back, black spots on the chest, and a large black crescent under the chin. The yellow-shafted race has a red crescent on the back of the head and the males have a black ‘mustache’. When they are flying, you can see the white rump and the yellow under the wings and the tail (more reddish in the western red-shafted race).
Bird houses: Northern Flickers are primary cavity nesters which means they carve out their own nest sites. (Secondary cavity nesters look for an existing hole and often accept an appropriate sized bird house.) For many primary cavity nesters, the process of excavating the nest is such an integral part of the breeding cycle that they could not use a bird house – or any existing cavity. But, the Northern Flicker is one of the species that regularly makes an exception. If you want to make a Flicker nesting box, check the specifications since diameter of the hole, height of the hole above the floor, floor dimensions, and height of the box are all significant. There are plans online (that Google can find) or in books like the Complete Birdhouse Book by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.allaboutbirds.org (search for Northern Flicker); The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, David Allen Sibley; Complete Birdhouse Book, Donald and Lillian Stokes, Christmas Bird Count chart, Ken Harte.
Submissions and ideas for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged on any species that occurs in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send a note, a photo, or the whole column to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a mystery species, send that too. ∆