Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
|Also known as:||boreal flicker, common flicker, Cuban flicker, gilded flicker, gilded woodpecker, golden-winged woodpecker, Guadalupe flicker, Malherbe’s flicker, Mearns’ flicker, northwestern flicker, red-shafted flicker, red-shafted woodpecker, San Fernando flicker, San Pedro flicker, southern flicker, yellowhammer, yellow-shafted flicker|
|Size||Length: 30 - 35 cm (2)|
|Weight||105 - 167 g (2)|
The northern flicker is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a beautiful North American woodpecker with a charming appearance (3). It is the third largest woodpecker in the region after the ivory-billed (Campephilus principalis) and pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), and has a powerful, stocky build, a slim, rounded head, a long, flared tail that tapers to a point, and a robust, downward-curved bill (3) (4) (5). The brown plumage is richly pattered with black spots, bars and crescents, and is whitish on the underparts, grey on the head, with a red patch on the rear of the neck, and pinkish on the cheeks (3) (6). The appearance of the northern flicker varies greatly across its range, but the populations in the eastern parts of the species’ range can be loosely grouped into a ‘yellow-shafted’ form, while populations in the west can be grouped into a ‘red-shafted’ form. The key difference between these two forms is the colour of the feather shafts, which are either a lemon yellow or rosy red. The yellow-shafted form also has a tan coloured face, with a grey crown and red crescent on the throat, and a black ‘moustache’ on the male bird. The red-shafted form also has a gray face, but with a brown crown, and no throat-crescent, and a red moustache stripe on the male (2) (3) (4). The identification of these two forms is further complicated by hybrids, which have an intermediate appearance and are common along the border of the two forms’ ranges (3).
The northern flicker ranges from the tree line in Canada and Alaska, south and eastwards across the North American continent, generally east of the Rocky Mountains, to the Gulf of Mexico, Central America and the Northern Antilles (2) (6). The red-shafted form is largely restricted to the western half of the United States, while the yellow-shafted form is found in the eastern half, with a broad zone in the centre of the country where the two forms interbreed (4).
As a broadly distributed species, the northern flicker occupies a diversity of habitats. It may be found in almost any habitat with trees and access to open ground, preferring open woodlands, savannas and forest edges, although it tends to avoid the densest forests (2) (3) (4) (7).
Despite being adept at climbing up the trunks of trees and hammering at wood to extract embedded insects, unlike other woodpeckers the northern flicker prefers to forage for food on the ground, hopping or running short distances between prey (3) (4). Ants may comprise as much as 75 percent of its diet (2), which it captures by hammering and digging at the soil, before darting out its long, barbed tongue at the end of the bill to snare its prey (3). The northern flicker also eats beetles, flies, butterflies, moths and snails, and often forages amongst other birds including sparrows and blackbirds, either alone, in pairs, in family groups, or in flocks of up to 15 birds (2) (3). When startled, unlike most other woodpeckers which quickly clamber up a nearby tree trunk, the northern flicker alights upon a thin horizontal branch and sits in a characteristic erect posture. It flies in a smooth rising and falling motion as it alternates periods of flapping with gliding (3).
The northern flicker is monogamous, with pairs mating for life, and produces two broods of chicks per season (2). The timing of breeding depends on the location but generally occurs between April and July. A territory is vigorously defended around the nesting site, which is usually a cavity excavated over 5 to 20 days by both the male and female bird in a dead tree, or a dead branch of a live tree (2). Pairs defend this territory by drumming loudly against a tree and also by confronting rivals in displays called a ‘fencing duel’, in which two birds face each other with the bills pointed upwards and the head rapidly twisted and bobbed (2) (3) (4). These displays also serve to reinforce the bond between breeding birds (4). The nest cavity has a narrow entrance but widens at the bottom to make room for the eggs and the incubating bird, which lies upon a bed of wood chips (3). A clutch of 4 to 9 eggs is usually laid and then incubated by both adult birds for 11 to 12 days. The chicks are fed on regurgitated food, largely by the adult male. They fledge from the nest at around 25 to 28 days old, but remain with the adult birds for an additional 15 to 20 days before becoming fully independent (2). The northern flicker first breeds at one year of age, with the oldest known bird having lived to nine years and two months of age (2) (3).
The northern flicker is also unusual for being one of few North American woodpeckers that exhibits strong migratory behaviour (3). Those populations in the southern and central parts of the species’ range may remain in the same location all year round, but those at more northerly locations tend to travel southwards before the onset of winter (2) (3). Typically, they leave the northern breeding grounds from the end of august to late October or November, with most birds departing in September. Whilst migrating, the northern flicker flies low over the ground, often in large flocks, and does not return to the breeding grounds until early March to May the following year (2).
Although still widespread and relatively common, northern flicker populations have been in decline for several decades, estimated at around two percent per year. The principle cause of this decline is unclear, but it may be due to competition for nest cavities with other birds, reduced availability of nest sites, or the application of pesticides (4). Competition with introduced European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) is often evoked as an explanation for dwindling numbers of the northern flicker, but while some studies have found evidence to support this notion, others have not (4) (7). Similarly, the policy of removing snags, dead limbs and diseased trees from urban areas and managed forests may be limiting the availability of nesting cavities, but it is still unclear how significant a factor this is. There is also some limited evidence to suggest that the northern flicker is susceptible to ingesting pesticides used on golf courses, agricultural fields and suburban fields (4). In Cuba, deforestation is the greatest threat to the species, while it is now thought to be extinct in Guadeloupe as a result of habitat destruction by feral goats and predation by cats (2).
Conserving the northern flicker is of critical importance if biodiversity in North American forests is to be preserved as it acts as a keystone species by excavating a large proportion of the nest cavities used by many other cavity-nesting bird species. Despite this, there have been few conservation actions targeting the northern flicker, and conducting further studies into determining the main cause of the species’ decline is of paramount importance. It is also recommended that snags should be left in managed forests to prevent the loss of nesting habitat (4). The northern flicker is also protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has been ratified by the governments of Mexico, Canada and the United States and prohibits the killing or harming of the northern flicker, including its nests and eggs (6).
To find out more about bird conservation in the Americas, see:
American Bird Conservancy:
For more information on the northern flicker and other bird species, see:
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- Feral: previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
- Hybrid: the offspring produced by parents of two different species or subspecies.
- Incubate: to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (October, 2010)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2002) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 7: Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds: Northern flicker (October, 2010)
Wiebe, K.L. and Moore, W.S. (2008) Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Alabama Department of Archives and History – Northern flicker (October, 2010)
South Dakota Birds and Birding – Northern flicker (October, 2010)