The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), a large, colorful woodpecker, is a highly noticeable part of our avifauna. This is largely due to its frequenting open habitats, where its boldly patterned plumage and often-loud vocalizations draw human attention to it.
While it often perches on the side of a tree like more typical members of its family, this quirky woodpecker spends much time foraging on the ground for ants, which make up most of its diet during the warmer months. Few other birds will eat ants more than occasionally, likely because of the strong concentrations of formic acid these insects carry in their bodies.
The flicker is a beautiful bird. Its back and the upper surfaces of its wings are a light brown with thin black horizontal barring, the underparts dappled with round black spots over a background of creamy off-white. The tail is black, contrasting with the largely white uppertail coverts, conspicuous in flight. The nape of the neck and crown are gray, interrupted by a bright red “V” on the upper nape. This gray turns to brown on the face and throat, underlined with a black “sideways crescent” separating the brown of the throat from speckled belly. The male has a black “mustache”, or malar stripe, extending from the base of the bill. The most striking part of this bird’s plumage is the underside of its wings, which flash a startling golden-yellow when the bird flies.
Like our other woodpeckers, this bird excavates nesting and roosting cavities in dead and dying trees, and these holes, when eventually abandoned, are important nest sites for many birds that nest in tree hollows but cannot excavate their own cavities. There is much competition with the non-native European Starling for nest sites, as the starlings often do not wait for the flickers to be done nesting before trying to appropriate a flicker hole. Though starlings are smaller and lighter in weight than flickers, with far less powerful bills and neck muscles, surprisingly the starlings almost always win a fight with flickers over a nest cavity.
The Northern Flicker is experiencing a long term, continent-wide population decline; the reasons for this are not fully clear, but some possible factors include competition with starlings for nest sites and removal of dead trees in areas near human habitation that are otherwise suitable flicker habitat. Since this species often nests in suburban or semi-suburban landscapes, leaving dead trees and large dead limbs in areas that are not next to buildings or trails can help to locally increase populations of this lovely bird.