Mad About Science: Northern flicker

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Every year, around this time I hear a little tap, tap, tap at the window. First thing in the morning, it’s always a little bit disorienting — who is tapping at my window? Shaking off the morning grogginess, I swiftly come to the realization that the pre-spring alarm clock is the annual window cleaning service. Brown-and-white feathers, speckled with black and splashed with a touch of red, the northern flicker has come to scavenge the remains of insects lining the edges of my window panes.

Courtesy image.

You may be familiar with the northern flicker, a large member of the woodpecker family that lives here year round, but is most visible during the winter months. You may have heard its call while wandering the trails, though it may have been difficult to differentiate from the sounds of chipmunks and squirrels. The northern flicker makes a very high-pitched and repetitive “yipyipyip” sound that can repeat itself for several seconds. The true hallmark of the northern flicker’s call is its drumming. These birds will repeatedly tap their beaks against a surface very rapidly to create a hollow drumming tone. This sound is used by the bird to identify itself to its neighbors and to attract mates. It’s similar to the behavior of that one really loud guy at the bar who’s always trying to start a fight:

“Look how big and imposing I am! No one is as loud as I am! I am a prime candidate for a mate!”

Northern flickers have a higher success rate with this obnoxious behavior than humans do, particularly when they decide to percuss on a metal roof.

Woodpeckers will often stick to trees where they’ll root for insects and find shelter from large predators. Northern flickers take a slightly different approach, instead foraging for insects on the ground until something spooks them into flight. Similar to grouse, the northern flicker will explode into flight and startle whatever was passing by in a flash of brown, white and red feathers.

Similar to many other woodpeckers, the northern flicker has an extremely elongated tongue that can extend up to two inches beyond the point of its beak. This specialized tool is used by the bird to probe into anthills and capture ants to eat. You may be wondering to yourself: “Doesn’t it hurt? Aren’t the ants biting its tongue? How is it grabbing the ants?”

While I may not be able to answer the first two questions, I can tell you that the northern flicker has a special salivary gland that secretes a sticky substance that coats the tongue every time it emerges from the beak. This sticky substance glues the ants to its tongue, allowing the bird to pull them back into its beak to eat them. Ant al dente!

The northern flicker’s appetite for ants also explains its preference for foraging at ground level. While ants will climb trees to gather sap and other resources, they almost exclusively build their nests underground. Their predictable pattern, guided by pheromone trails, makes the insects easy prey for the agile woodpecker.

The northern flicker has a tremendous range, flying as far north as Alaska and as far south as Nicaragua. The bird’s range extends from the Pacific to the Atlantic, though you begin to see some variety in the appearance of the bird past the Rockies. The red shafted northern flicker resides around here, easily identifiable by the brilliant red patches that look like rouge on its cheeks. A yellow-shafted variant becomes prominent as you travel eastward, claiming much of the southern United States, stretching its range all the way up and into Maine. During breeding season, they’ll travel into some of the northernmost reaches of every province in Canada.

Breeding season extends from February through July, as parents will create a nest in a hollowed out section of a dead tree or artificial nesting box and lay between five and eight eggs. Both parents will take turns incubating the eggs in the nest, which will not go untended until the chicks are ready to venture out on their own. Woodpecker parenting is a full-time gig.

As beautiful as they are, these birds do have natural predators. Northern flicker chicks are vulnerable to raccoons, squirrels and snakes. Adults are preyed upon by raptors that specialize in hunting other birds. Death by hawk is one of the most brutal outcomes for any creature on Earth, as hawks will often daze their prey with an impact, pin them with their talons and let their prey exhaust themselves until the hawk feels confident enough to eat the prey alive.

Northern flickers will perform a ritualistic dance during mating season. It’s an unusual display, and one not often seen by humans. Two males will puff out their chests and point their beaks upward to fence at the air in the direction of one another, sometimes for hours before one of them abandons the territory and moves on. This isn’t unusual bird behavior by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s incredibly funny to watch. There are numerous videos of the bird’s mating dance on Youtube if you are particularly interested.

Unfortunately, their numbers are declining, likely due to human-related activity and a changing climate. While their numbers aren’t in a freefall toward becoming endangered, they — like virtually every other non-human animal other than roaches and rats — are steadily declining in population. You can help slow this decline by building a nesting box and hanging it up securely out of the reach of many common predators. While there is no guarantee that a bird will inhabit your space, even offering a spot may help a bird that’s struggling in the future. There are several books on building birdhouses and nesting boxes at the library, each one specially designed to house a specific kind of bird.

Stay curious, 7B.

While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.