Nature gifted the Northern Flicker with quite a quandary in life.
This beautiful bird is a ground-dwelling woodpecker, preferring the open woods or forest edges to appease its appetite for feasting on ants and crickets. It’s as if the flicker isn’t entirely content with being a brown woodpecker, favoring instead to be an anteater.
Other times, the flicker courts the society of the robin and the finches, abandoning the trees for the meadow and feeding eagerly upon berries and grain, especially during the winter.
Northern Flickers Take to the Ground and Air
The great American nature essayist John Burroughs in his 1911 book, Bird Stories From Burroughs, references Darwin when writing about the flicker.
Burroughs questions if the woodpecker’s penchant for taking to the ground will lengthen its legs or feeding on berries and grains will subdue its tints. Might the flicker’s voice soften, and its association with the robin puts a song in its heart?
Flickers aren’t known for their song but for their drumming. Hiking in the woods, we listen for the Northern Flicker’s ringing kikikiki call and short bursts of drumming when it’s nearby.
Although you see these woodpeckers foraging on the ground, it’s just as common to witness them climbing tree trunks and limbs and occasionally flying out to catch insects in the air.
It’s been 111 years since Burroughs’ book, and luckily for us, the beautiful Northern Flicker remains as nature intends.
Northern Flicker Sports a Little Bit of Everything
Nature appointed the beautiful Northern Flicker with a gentle expression, handsome black-scalloped plumage, and a little bit of everything else.
You’ll find Yellow-shafted Flickers in the East and North and Red-shafted Flicker in the West.
Besides vibrant pops of color, these woodpeckers have stripes, and dots, to accent their white tail with black bars and a black tip. In addition, these birds have a light brown to off-white breast with black to brown spots and sport a black “bib” on their upper chest and a pop of red or yellow color on the back of the bird’s neck (nape).
Males have a black mustache running from their bill down to their cheek. The male Red-shafted Northern Flicker has a red mustache stripe, the male Yellow-shafted has a black mustache stripe. The female is without a mustache stripe.
And in flight, you see the majestic yellow or red underside of its tail.
Since we’re in the East, our version of the North Flicker is the yellow-shafted variety. Our favorite part of watching these beautiful woodpeckers is seeing their yellow underside fanned out when they’re in flight – and a bright white flash on the rump.
Finding Northern Flickers
Seeing these birds is not where you expect to find a woodpecker because flickers eat mainly ants and beetles, digging for them with their unusual, slightly curved bill.
Flickers excavate for ants underground where the nutritious larvae live, hammering at the soil the way other woodpeckers drill into wood.
These birds are a joy to have a guest in your backyard. Though Northern Flickers don’t habitually visit bird feeders, they stop by our feeders in winter and enjoy our birdbaths during summer.
If your backyard has a mixture of trees and open ground, or if it’s near woods, chances are you may find Northern Flickers walking around the wooded edges. We see our flickers excavating the sandy soil for ants.
So on walks, don’t be surprised if you think you see a woodpecker feeding on the ground. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks. It’s just a Northern Flicker doing what nature intended, acting like an anteater…with wings.
John Burroughs is one of the most essential nature writers in history and a noted authority on backyard birding. Learn more about John Burroughs and his works at the John Burroughs Association. Visit his famous cabin in the woods if you’re near John Burroughs’ Slabsides and Nature Sanctuary at Floyd Ackert Road in West Park, NY. Get directions to Slabsides here.