The northern flicker, so often pushed around by more aggressive birds, could use a little help.
by Frank Graham jr.
The tall, stout stub of a dead trembling aspen lingered
for several years in sight of our home in Maine. Each spring a couple
of northern flickers would excavate a nesting hole in the remains, giving
us hope that a pair of those handsome woodpeckers might remain to raise
their young. But no dice. Inevitably, the rapid-fire, high-pitched kwik-kwik-kwik-kwik
of the flickers would be replaced by the alien twaddle of European starlings.
Exit the flickers. Starlings, those efficient home-busters,
had once more taken over from the original residents. Yet moral outrage
yields little satisfaction in such a case because the problem is essentially
a conservation one. Suitable nesting trees are often in limited supply
in a given area. In our coastal region, the short-lived trembling aspens
and paper birches that proliferate may succumb before growing to robust
size. As they die, their stubs are often toppled by winds and ice storms.
One solution to this housing shortage is to set out artificial
homes. It's well known that bluebirds, tree swallows, and purple martins
take readily to nesting boxes in much of the country. But flickers?
Well, why not? Though they breed in 49 U.S. states and much of Canada,
the northern flicker could use some help. "Although still abundant
and widespread," Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman notes
in Lives of North American Birds, "recent surveys indicate
declines in population over much of the range since the 1960s."
This decline is about 52 percent since 1966. Because of
the species' wide range, the exact causes of its woes are hard to pin
down. The human penchant for cutting dead snags gets prominent mention
from researchers, and as suitable nesting places become rare, competition
for them increases. Flickers, which chiefly eat ants, spend a great
deal of time pursuing them during the 12 days it takes the birds to
excavate a nest. Unfortunately, when they take a break from nest building,
starlings, squirrels, even kestrels notice their absence and appropriate
Northern flickers make good neighbors. They consume prodigious
numbers of ants and other terrestrial insects, and visit backyards in
modest numbers instead of overwhelming them the way starlings, grackles,
and house sparrows often do. Flickers make good neighbors for birds,
too, and can often be seen hammering away at an anthill while robins
feast on the worms driven to the surface by the commotion.
The northern flicker was created as a species in 1973
when the American Ornithologists' Union lumped the yellow-shafted flicker
of northern and eastern North America with the red-shafted flicker of
the West. The two forms, distinguished mainly by the colors of their
wing linings, interbreed where they overlap on the Great Plains. A smaller
species, the gilded flicker, lives in the Southwest.
Feeding on ground-living ants seems a perversity in birds
so beautifully designed to extract grubs from tree trunks and limbs.
Like all woodpeckers, flickers are built on a unique plan: The strong,
four-toed feet found in most family members, as well as their stiff
tail feathers, support the birds as they move up tree trunks or hold
them in place as they chisel into the wood with their rugged, pointed
bills. A recipe for becoming punch drunk, surely. But the woodpecker's
thickened skull and powerful neck muscles cushion its brain from the
Another woodpecker feature is the long, pale tongue. For
most woodpeckers, the tongue functions as a spear, probing deep beneath
the bark and drawing out prey with the help of backward-pointing barbs
near its tip. In flickers, by contrast, a flattened tip on the extensible
tongue is used to maneuver eggs, pupae, and adult insects from the soil.
Still, trees are essential for northern flickers, which sometimes feed on berries or insects among the foliage; excavate their nests in any suitable trunk, stub, or stump; and roost in crevices or cavities. If good nesting trees aren't available, well, that's where we pro bono carpenters are in demand.
Field editor Frank Graham Jr. is a longtime
contributor to Audubon.
© 2002 NASI
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