Northern Flicker: Considerations for Tree Care Providers in Western North America

‘Red-shafted’ Northern Flicker by J. Omar Hansen

by Gillian Martin

The Northern Flicker is the second largest, most widespread and migratory woodpecker in North America (except for Hawaii which has no woodpeckers). Unlike most other woodpeckers, its coloration is suited for its ground foraging habits. An untrained eye would find little to suggest this bird is a woodpecker, and even less likely to guess its remarkable adaptions for its specialized role. A young boy fascinated by all things ‘gross’ would light up like a Christmas tree to discover the Flicker’s impressive and ‘eeky’ abilities.

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Upperparts and belly are cryptic for its terrestrial foraging habits. A third eyelid shields against flying debris.
Anthony Lukich

The flicker is a primary predator of underground ants, eating more than any other North American bird. Stomach contents suggest a thousand a day. Its diet, however, includes many other arthropods, including those found in trees (especially those with decay), and even in cow patties. In fall and winter, fruit and large seeds are preferred.

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A specialized tongue and sticky saliva are designed to capture ants and other small insects.
Ken Griffiths

Its barbed tongue protrudes almost 2 inches from the bill, aided by elastic bony rods to which it is attached. These rods wrap and rest around the back of the skull, enter the right nostril and cavity of the upper jaw. When the bird deploys its tongue, the rods catapult it forward. When the bill is shut, they swing back into place. To capture many ants at a time, the flicker’s large salivary gland excretes sticky mucous which covers the tongue as it shoots forward.

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The male’s showy tail and underwings are designed to impress females and intimidate competitors. A white rump flashes in flight.
Tom Koerner USFSW Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the bird’s decurved bill is best suited to be applied as a pickax rather than a chisel. This makes it less ideal for excavating in wood. Consequently, the flicker frequently reuses old, excavated cavities, easily excavates in saguaro, and chooses aspen (when available) because of the tree’s propensity for heartwood rot. About 14 days are required for the work. About sixty or so cavity-nesting birds (as well as many other wildlife) nest and seek protection in the abandoned cavities of woodpeckers. The family Picidae are vital carpenters of the bird world.

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Flickers are better adapted for excavating cavities in saguaro, aspen and trees with heart rot.
US Forest Service Wikimedia Commons

Where dead snags are available in spring, the Flicker can be found in montane forests, isolated woodlands in the desert, city parks and urban neighborhoods. Breeding time varies by region but ranges from February through July. Its nest may be as low as six feet above ground. If you approach a tree cavity about 3 inches in diameter and detect the sound of bees inside, you may be hearing the Flicker’s nestlings attempting to scare you away. When possible, delaying tree care until they have left is the best practice.

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Flicker broods vary in size from 3 to 13 nestlings.
Wendy Niro

The Flicker is one of the most vocal woodpeckers. The bird is fond of announcing itself with a kee’er or kee’ew. Once recognized, its Wicka and Peah calls are also unmistakable.

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In the east, the species is ‘yellow-shafted.’ Overall hybridization is common.
Melissa McMasters Wikimedia Commons

The species is steadily declining in North America. Construction reduces ant nests and simultaneously attracts the non-native European Starling which outcompetes Flickers for nest sites in some regions. But arborists can mitigate for the greatest impact on the Flicker and other species that rely on its nest cavities by safely managing snags and live trees with heart rot, when possible. Though not well substantiated, pesticides on golf courses, agricultural fields and urban lawns are thought to be a contributing factor.

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