Woodpeckers: Northern Flickers

Overview

Photo of Northern Flicker

Figure 1: Photo Credit - Jim Pruske

Of the eight species of woodpeckers (including sapsuckers) that live in Maine, the Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus, Fig. 1) is probably the most commonly seen and heard. This flicker has a conspicuous white rump patch and yellow-colored wing undersides that are distinctly visible during its slow, bouncy flight. Flickers can also be identified by their loud call that sounds like wake-up, wake-up, wake-up and a piercing, sharply descending peeahr. Any annoyance these woodpeckers may cause for homeowners is greatly outweighed by the large number of insect pests they eat and the number of homes they create for other wildlife.

The Northern flicker is well adapted for life on tree surfaces. Special adaptations include (1) a strong, chisel like bill to hack into bark and wood; (2) a thick skull that can withstand the pounding; (3) long, strong toes with curved nails that can grab bark; (4) stiff tail feathers that prop the birds up while they are climbing or pounding; and (5) a very long, extendable tongue with a barbed tip. (Fig. 1)

Facts about Northern Flickers

Food and Feeding Behavior

  • Northern flickers commonly feed on the ground, searching for ants and beetle larvae. While flickers eat tree-dwelling and wood-boring insects, they also will eat berries, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
  • When searching for insects, flickers tap on wooden surfaces and look and listen for insect movement. If they see or hear an insect, they will continue chiseling until they catch the insects.
  • Hollow sounds also may indicate that insects are present, thus encouraging flickers to continue chiseling away.
  • Flickers are also attracted to suet feeders.

Figure 2:
Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

A woodpecker's tongue retracted (left) and extended (right). The exceptionally long tongue wraps around the skull and is anchored at the base of the bill. The tip of the tongue is barbed to help extract insects from holes and the tongue is coated with sticky saliva. The pileated woodpecker, shown here, is the largest of all woodpecker species in North America. (Fig. 2)

Nest Sites and Shelter

Tunnel

Figure 3:
Drawing Credit - ODFW

  • Northern flickers excavate nest sites in dead or dying trees, aging utility poles, fence posts, and house siding. They will also nest in specially designed boxes.
  • The birds use their stout beaks to chisel down six to 18 inches, making a wide bottom for the egg chamber. (Fig. 3)
  • Both male and female flickers excavate the nest, the male doing substantially more than the female. Complete excavation may take only a few days in soft wood, but averages 14 days.
  • Nest holes may be started but never completed, possibly due to poor location or quality of the wood. Occasionally flickers will re-use a nest hole after doing some minor work to it.
  • The female lays eggs on wood chips created during excavation of the nest.

Northern flickers will tunnel down six to 18 inches in a nest tree, making a wide bottom for the egg chamber. (Fig. 3)

Reproduction

  • The breeding season for extends from mid-April to June.
  • Both male and female flickers incubate the five to eight eggs for about 11 days, then brood the newly hatched young for about four days.
  • Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest after 24 to 27 days, or as late as mid-July.
  • The parents continue to feed the young once they fledge. Soon the young begin to follow the adults to foraging sites and gather their own food.
  • Individual flickers return to the same area to breed year after year.

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Viewing Northern Flickers

Where and when: Flickers are usually found in areas dominated by trees; they also occur in treeless areas where utility poles, wood-sided homes, and other structures substitute for trees. They are often seen hopping on lawns where they catch ants and other insects with their sticky tongues. If you offer suet at your feeder, flickers may become regular visitors.

Figure 4:
Drawing Credit - Stokes

What to look for: Flickers can be recognized by their undulating flight-wings flapping as the bird flies up and wings folded on the way down. Signs of roosting, nesting, and feeding sites are likely to be found in wooded areas where old, large trees have some dead or rotting wood. Look for fresh wood chips on the ground below an excavation site. A popular feeding tree is obvious because of the number of holes in it. Flickers use various visual displays, including head-weaving and body-bobbing, during courtship and as signs of aggression toward intruders (Fig. 4). The most active displaying occurs early in the breeding season, before nest-building, when the birds are competing for mates.

Head-bobbing, the most common visual display of flickers, is accompanied by a call. (Fig. 4)

Attracting Flickers to Your Property

Feeder

Figure 5: Drawing Credit - Ken Short

To attract flickers, it is important to protect undisturbed wooded areas, particularly those that contain dead or dying trees. While larger trees may be more suitable housing, small trees rot faster and quickly attract insects that flickers eat.

Provided trees don't threaten to fall on people, pets, or houses, leave them for "woodpecker watching".

Install a suet feeder (Fig. 5). Suet can be obtained neatly packaged from stores that cater to the bird-feeding public, and at farm supply centers and hardware stores.

Install a nest box that is specially designed for flickers.

Avoid using pesticides, especially insecticides.

Leave ant colonies for flickers to find and harvest. One wildlife biologist found more than 2,000 ants in the stomach contents of a single specimen.

Leave some fruit on orchard trees for flickers to eat in late summer, fall and winter.

Suet or peanut butter can be placed in feeder holes that are one inch in diameter and one inch deep. Attach a tree limb to a lightweight skillet using outdoor wood screws and a threaded bolt. (Fig. 5)

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Preventing Conflicts

Flickers that have been crowded out of their wooded territories will readily use alternative structures for drumming, food-seeking, or excavating a cavity. If you take down dead or decaying trees in the hope that you can drive flickers away, you may instead encourage them to investigate your house for a food or nest site. The flicker that awakens you in the spring, drumming loudly on a gutter or metal flashing, is simply using available habitat.

The success of the following strategies will depend on the woodpecker's previous exposure to them as well as the timing and the availability of food and shelter. You will have to weigh the trouble and expense of control against the scope of the damage that the bird is causing.

The materials mentioned here - Mylar scare tape, Mylar scare balloons, bird netting, and woodpecker repellents - are available from farm supply centers, nurseries, and the Web (search for "bird control supplies.") Some pest-control companies sell heavier netting with a larger mesh than common bird netting used to protect fruit. Such netting is not as likely to create problems for small songbirds, which sometimes get caught in the smaller mesh.

Preventing Drumming

A flicker drums to proclaim its territory and attract a mate as well as to communicate with its mate. Flickers typically drum during the breeding season (mid-April to June), but may continue into July. For reasons that are not fully understood, birds may also drum for a short time in the fall.

Drumming is the most common reason flickers use buildings, and while it may be annoying, the bird's activity usually does not completely penetrate wood siding. Flickers return to the same location because it works for them; they attract a mate this way. A flicker that has been using the same location for several years will be hard to move.

To discourage drumming, try a combination of these strategies:

Figure 6:
Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Scare the flicker by hanging strips of Mylar scare tape or floating Mylar party balloons in front of the area of activity (Fig. 6). When using scare tape, strengthen each strip by attaching a piece of duct tape or nylon packing tape to each end. Tack or nail one end to the outer end of the roof just under the gutter, and attach the other end to the side of the house. Before attaching the bottom, twist the tape six to seven times and keep the tape loose enough to provide some slack. The slack and twisting are necessary to produce the shimmering effect. Apply tape strands at parallel intervals of two to three feet.

You can also try hanging aluminum pie pans horizontally along a rope or section of twine (Fig. 6). Run one end of the rope to a convenient window and fasten it to an object inside the house. Whenever you hear drumming, jerk on the string to make the pans move.

Some people have had success with stapling large rubber spiders in the vicinity of the drumming birds. Large, black rubber spiders are available from most party stores. The Birds Away Attack Spider® is vibration/sound activated; it responds to the drumming of woodpeckers by dropping down on a "web" cord. Batteries then bring the spider back up the cord, where it waits for the next unsuspecting woodpecker to arrive.

Scare the flicker away from a drumming site by hanging strips of Mylar scare tape, aluminum pie pans, or floating Mylar party balloons in front of the area of activity. (Fig. 6)

Scaring the flicker by shouting and banging pans outside a nearby window may provide temporary relief. A squirt of water with a garden hose can have a similar effect. Again, flickers living in urban areas likely will have grown accustomed to such noises and activity, and the results will be short lived.

Figure 7:
Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Create a barrier by covering or wrapping the gutter, down-spout, or other drumming site with a sheet, tarp, burlap or other material. A large area of siding can be protected by hanging a sheet, tarp, or bird netting from the roof gutter or eave (Fig. 7). Be sure to cover any ledges or cracks the bird uses as a foothold while drumming. If you cannot fasten the material to the gutter or eave, attach it to a board that has been temporarily fastened along the top of the wall.

If a single board on the house serves as a toehold, heavy monofilament fishing line or stainless steel wire can be tightly stretched approximately two inches above the landing site to prevent the flicker from perching.

Repel flickers by applying a commercially available, nontoxic woodpecker-protective coating spray where activity is taking place. If you are unable to find a commercial product, try mixing cayenne pepper and water with a few drops of vegetable oil in a spray bottle. The spray serves an aromatic and taste deterrent.

Prevent flickers from accessing the side of a house by creating a barrier with a sheet, tarp, burlap, bird netting or other material. (Fig. 7)

Discouraging Food-seeking Behavior

Flickers inspect tree trunks and branches for wood-boring beetles and other insects throughout the year. If a flicker pecking is not restricted to one location on your house, and if it occurs any time of year, the bird is probably gathering insects, or their eggs or larva. Physical evidence of this behavior includes soft pecking in straight lines that result in dime-sized holes.

Once they have established a feeding pattern on a house, flickers can be very persistent, and the holes they create may serve as visual attractants to other flickers. It is important the get them to stop as soon as possible.

Note: that the flickers may be doing you a favor by drawing attention to an insect infestation. As a temporary measure, you can create a barrier between the bird and food source by using one of the techniques described earlier. For the long term, you'll need to control the insects if you have an infestation, and then make any necessary repairs or modifications with wood filler, caulk, or other materials. You may want to consult a licensed pest-control operator to find out how to remove the insects and eliminate future infestations.

Discouraging Nest Building

If you find a round opening about the same width as the flicker that made it in the siding or other boards, the woodpecker is probably excavating a cavity in which to nest or roost. Often the birds pull out insulation from between the walls, so there may be bits of insulation below the new hole.

In the spring or early summer, assume there is an active nest with eggs or chicks inside. Forcing flickers away from an active nest is illegal. Instead, after the young birds have left the nest (generally by late June), immediately seal the opening to prevent starlings, house sparrows, squirrels, or other animals from using the cavity.

Flickers commonly use nest boxes, so if a flicker has nested or attempted to nest in a wall, consider providing a box specially designed for the species to lure it away from the building. A nesting flicker may defend its territory and keep other flickers away.

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Public Health Concerns

Northern flickers are not considered to be a significant source of any infectious disease transmittable to humans or domestic animals.

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The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects Northern flickers. A state permit and federal permit can be obtained to use lethal means to control flickers when extreme damage is occurring on private property. Such permits are only granted after all other nonlethal control techniques have proven unsuccessful. Contact your regional Fish and Wildlife office for permit information.

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Additional Information

Books

New England Wildlife, Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution
Written by: Richard DeGraff, and Mariko Yamasaki
University Press of New England, 2001.
(Available from: www.upne.com)

Internet Resources

Adapted from: "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest"
(see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Written by: Russell Link, Wildlife Biologist, Email Russell, with assistance from WDFW Biologists Rich Beausoleil and Rocky Spencer

Design and layout: Peggy Ushakoff, ITT2

Illustrations: As credited

Copyright 2005 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


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