Northern Flicker—Unusual Toes, a Long Tongue and a “Chiseling” Beak
Once upon a time, North America had 2 major flicker species—the more eastern Yellow-shafted Flicker and the more western Red-shafted Flicker. Each was named for the color of the shafts of their tail and flight feathers, either a lively lemon-yellow or a lovely orange-red. Several decades ago, these species were lumped together as Northern Flicker when scientists realized that they interbreed easily wherever they overlap. In Colorado, our flickers are primarily the red-shafted subspecies, although it’s not uncommon to see hybrids sporting some features of each subspecies and, occasionally, some pure yellow-shafteds. In this lovely photo, you can see the red shafts of the flight and tail feathers. And here is a photo of a male and female Northern Flicker (red-shafted) together. You can tell they are red-shafted even without seeing the shafts because this male has a red “mustache” (malar stripe) while a yellow-shafted male would have a black mustache. (Note that the female has no malar stripe.) In 2014, Greenwood didn’t have many young flickers (only 10), but we took in 26 adults and sub-adults—and 1 adult hybrid red-/yellow-shafted.
The scientific name of the Northern Flicker is Colaptes (Greek for “chisel”) auratus (Latin for “gilded”)—originally assigned to the Yellow-shafted Flickers when they were considered a stand-alone species. (When species are combined, a new scientific name isn’t always created. And now, following the “lumping” of the Northern Flicker species, the Southwest also has a distinct species of Gilded Flicker, with a “non-gilded” scientific species name. Just to add to the fun and confusion.) It’s not clear how the common name “Flicker” evolved. My favorite theory is that it’s an imitation of one of their many vocalizations. Heard mostly during breeding season, to me it sounds like a soft, almost squeaky “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a”—or, to some, “flick-a.” They’re most commonly identified year-round by their strident “kleeee-yer” call or a repetitive “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” during mating season. During breeding season, the male also drums—fast, nearly uncountable pounding of his beak—on something noisy, like your gutters or a large hollow tree. Despite many people’s fears, the bird is not trying to excavate a cavity in your house with this rapid drumming; he’s just announcing his territory and attempting to attract a mate. (Click here [scroll down a bit to the “typical voice” section] to hear the “kleer” call, the “wick-a” call, the “ki-ki” matting call, and the drumming.)
Flickers are part of the vast woodpecker family—and the one most likely to be found hunting for food on the ground rather than in trees. (In case you need another reason to appreciate flickers, ants are an important staple of their diets during the summer months.) Woodpeckers have some interesting physical features. For instance, they use their extremely stiff tails to brace themselves as they move up and down tree trunks. In addition, most perching birds have 3 toes pointing forward and 1 pointing back (called anisodactyl)to help grip a tree branch. But most woodpeckers have 2 toes facing forward and 2 facing backward (zygodactyl), for better traction when traveling along trunks. They also have much longer, more curved claws than non-climbing birds do, for greater gripping power. (Volunteers and staff who’ve tried to unhook a flicker’s feet from the side of a cage or a bird net find it can be quite a challenge.) A flicker has a greatly elongated apparatus that supports and controls the tongue; the sheath that contains the tongue wraps completely around the skull and attaches at the nostril! This extraordinary arrangement—hummingbirds are the only other birds that have it—allows them to extend their tongues well beyond their beaks. (That may not sound like much in the human world; but in the bird world, it’s major.) Flicker tongues are especially sticky, so they can lap up their favorite food—ants. They also extract beetle larvae by probing the soil with their long beaks. Since many spend winters in Colorado, they switch to fruit, berries, and seeds when ants and beetles become scarce. They also appreciate suet offered at feeders during the cold months.
Both adults feed their young, regurgitating food for the nestlings. Young flickers fledge between 24 and 27 days after hatching; they stay with their parents for only a short time afterwards. (You can see a series of photos of a brood of baby flickers, from hatching day to almost fledging, who grew up in a nest box on our neighbors’ house here.) All woodpeckers are cavity nesters; however, flickers typically excavate nest cavities only in soft or diseased wood, since their beaks aren’t quite as strong as those of most other woodpeckers. But volunteers and staff who have ever been pecked by one of these feisty young flickers might want to take issue with that.