A Woodpecker That Rarely Pecks Wood

Aug 5, 2014

Next, DNR wildlife biologist Jeremy Holtz talks about the woodpecker that doesn't act like a woodpecker...

Northern flickers are in the woodpecker family, but they act quite differently than many woodpeckers.
Credit Dick Daniels / http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_Flicker_male_Yellow-shafted_RWD.jpg

Here in the Northwoods, we have a lot of birds. Our variety of bird species is the greatest this time of year, because our year-round residents and migratory birds are all present. Each spring I need to brush up on my bird species again, because the birds are breeding and feeding, which makes them readily visible to anyone paying attention. For example, I was out grilling on my deck a couple of weeks ago when I heard a sound I hadn’t heard for months—the sound of chimney swifts chattering overhead. There is another distinctive bird call that tells me spring is turning to summer, that being the Northern Flicker.

The Flicker is a cool bird. If you have left your home, or at least looked out the window, you have probably seen this bird. It is a woodpecker, actually, even though it doesn’t always act like one. It is a fairly large bird, slightly larger than a robin or mourning dove. The overall coloration is gray and brown, which doesn’t help because a lot of birds are gray and brown. It definitely does have some pretty unique color traits, though. It has a bright white patch on top of its rump that is visible when it flies away. The flight feathers on the wings have bright yellow, almost waxy looking shafts. There is a distinctive red triangle on the back of the head that is pretty hard to miss. Finally, the males have a black mark on their face that makes a sort of moustache.

How much wood would a woodpecker peck if a woodpecker would peck wood? Flickers are members of the woodpecker family, but they peck a lot less wood than their woodpecker relatives. Flickers have adapted to foraging on the ground for their favorite foods, ants and beetles. Other woodpeckers eat the same foods, but hammer on trees to get to them. Flickers use their slightly downturned beak to hammer into the ground and stick out their tongue. Their tongues are two inches long and covered with barbs that help grab onto ants and beetles and their larvae. Aside from their ground-feeding habit, they conduct their other business like other woodpeckers. They hammer on trees to communicate with other flickers. They nest in tree cavities, too.

With their love of eating ants and cavity nesting, it is no wonder flickers do so well in north central Wisconsin. We have sandy ground that hosts plenty of ants and beetles. We have a lot of aspen, too; aspen seems to have a knack for developing heart rot that makes it ideal for cavity nesting birds. In fact, these birds are one of our species of least concern. However, as is the case with so many of our other bird species, our North American Breeding Bird Survey has indicated their population is in steep decline, over 40% in the last half century across its entire range. Could it be the impact of changing climate, or perhaps the increased use of pesticides to control insects? Maybe it is the loss of aspen acres in the last half century. Or, like so many other species, perhaps it is a combination of multiple factors.

I mentioned earlier that their call signals to me that we are moving from spring into summer. In the winter, our woodpeckers are readily seen and heard in town and in the woods. This is because woodpeckers are generally year-round residents. Not flickers, though – they are our only truly migratory woodpecker. I would surmise this has something to do with their ground feeding habit, which would not be a great strategy for survival in the land of frost and snow. So, they leave for a while, returning with the warm sunny weather to add to our terrific variety of summertime bird species.