By Lisa Bate
See a flash of red-orange from a flying bird, hear the familiar “flicka, flicka, flicka” call and I know that one of my favorite birds has just landed. It is the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)! This species is unmistakable in the field because the lower surface of its wings and tail are a bright salmon color. Yet it is not just the color of the flicker that makes it one of my favorite birds. Northern Flickers play such an important ecological role for so many species, in so many kinds of habitat, that I am always grateful when I see this bird, knowing that without them, the wildlife world would not be nearly as rich.
Northern Flickers range throughout North America and are the second largest woodpecker in northwestern Montana. Only the pterodactyl-like Pileated Woodpecker is larger. Flickers are split into two subspecies: the eastern yellow- and the western red-shafted flicker. Their scientific name which refers to the yellow-shafted flicker has two origins. Colaptes comes from the Greek word “to peck” and auratus comes from the Latin word meaning “golden.”
In northwest MT we have the red-shafted flicker (Colaptes auratus cafer). In addition to the brightly colored lower surface of the wings and tail, red-shafted Northern Flickers have a brown barred back, gray head with brown cap. A white rump patch is easy to see when in flight. Males have a red moustache. They average 12.5 inches in length with a wingspan of 20 inches. Where the yellow- and red-shafted flickers overlap, ornithologists have been intrigued by hybrids of the two subspecies for more than a century.
Northern Flickers forage primarily on the ground for ants and other insects. In the winter flickers will also forage on seeds, fruits and at local bird feeders. In our area flickers will either migrate south, or to lower elevations, for the winter. Research shows that flickers rely more heavily on snags as foraging sites in the winter when the ground is covered with snow.
I think of the flicker as the unsung hero of the cavity-nesting world. Without Northern Flickers, many of our other wildlife species would either disappear or be present in much lower numbers. Ecologists refer to these as “keystone species.” A keystone species is one that makes up only a small number of the animals in an area, but whose presence allows for the presence of many other animals. The role of such an animal in an ecosystem is like the keystone, or central stone, at the top of an arch. While there might not be a lot of weight on the keystone because of its position at the top, without it, the arch would collapse. Without Northern Flickers, an entire web of other species would collapse.
Many species are considered cavity nesters, but most cannot excavate their own nest cavities and are thus known as secondary cavity-nesters. Flying squirrels are an example. They are the second ones to use a cavity made by a woodpecker. Species that are capable of excavating their own nest sites with their powerful beaks are known as primary cavity nesters. The Northern Flicker is a primary cavity nester and can excavate a new nest site every year. The abandoned cavities are then left for other species.
Flicker holes typically range from 2.5 to 3.5 inches in diameter. This is exactly the right size of cavity that many of our secondary cavity nesters need for their nest sites, just large enough for the secondary cavity nester’s body to pass through while limiting the chances of a predator getting in. For example, almost all American Kestrel nests are found in large (> 20 inches) diameter snags with an abandoned nest cavity made only by Northern Flickers. Kestrels do not use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers such as the Hairy, Three-toed, or Downy. These are too small. The abandoned Pileated Woodpecker cavities are too large. I once watched as a Cooper’s Hawk tried to prey on kestrel nestlings in an old flicker hole. After an hour, it still had not succeeded. It just could not get into the cavity.
When flickers nest near water, other bird species, like the Bufflehead, benefit. Although they are a duck, they are also a secondary cavity-nester and use old flicker holes almost exclusively for their nests. Can you imagine living in Montana without Mountain Bluebirds? Neither can I. Again, we have the Northern Flicker to thank for providing nest sites for the bluebirds. Both Tree and Violet-green swallows also nest in old flicker holes. Even some small owls take advantage of old flicker holes. European Starlings also strongly prefer flicker cavities (which, as you know, is not a good thing). Then there are the flying squirrels, the red squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, and small rodents that depend on flicker holes. Without flickers to excavate nest cavities, many of these species would disappear from an area. Thus, Northern Flickers are considered a keystone species.
Although Northern Flickers are still considered common throughout North America, there is evidence of a population decline noted since 1966, possibly due to loss of suitable nesting and foraging snags, competition with European Starlings, and pesticide applications on lawns, golf courses, and agricultural fields.
I do realize that everyone may not be excited about Northern Flickers. They can bring headaches if they decide that your house should become their house, too. The best way to keep flickers off your house is to provide them with suitable trees or snags for nesting nearby. Flickers are territorial, so if you have a pair nesting in a tree or snag in your yard, they will keep others off your house. Flickers will also forage on your house if there are insects hiding in the siding or roofing, so keeping the cracks and crevices to a minimum will also help.
To encourage Northern Flickers (and kestrels, bluebirds and swallows) to nest in your yard, allow some of your older trees with decay to remain. Flickers are not strong excavators and need softer wood to excavate their nest cavities. If a tree or snag is unsafe, consider topping it to 10 or 20 feet in height so they can have a nest site and you don’t have to worry about high winds. They like larger diameter trees and snags. While gathering firewood, first examine the snag for signs of wildlife use. If you see a cavity or recent foraging signs, choose another snag for firewood. Other things you can do to help Northern Flicker populations are to discourage European Starlings from nesting in your yard. Finally, choosing lawn products that are wildlife friendly can help this ground feeder. Together, there are many things we can do to keep Northern Flickers strong in their role as the unsung hero of the cavity nesting world.