Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker Adopted as the state bird of Alabama in 1927, the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), popularly known as the “Yellowhammer,” is a species of terrestrial woodpecker. It is in the Order Piciformes and the Family Picidae. It earned its common name for its incessant drumming or “hammering” on objects (“colaptes” is from the Greek for “to peck”) and signature bright yellow underwing feathers (“auratus” is Latin for “golden”). It is found year-round in Cuba, most of the United States, Mexico, and parts of Central America. One of the few migratory species of woodpecker, it flies to Alaska and Canada except the polar regions during the breeding season. In Alabama, northern flickers are found throughout the year, but they are most abundant during the winter, when northern populations migrate to the warm southern states to find food and join the resident bird population. Alabama became known as the “Yellowhammer State” during the American Civil War because the homespun uniforms of some Alabama soldiers were dyed in a manner that looked like the coloration of the northern flicker.

The northern flicker is part of the genus Colaptes, which comprises 12 species of New World woodpeckers characterized by a light beige or yellow underside with dark spots or bars. It is a relatively large species, with both males and females measuring from ~11 to 12 inches (28-31 centimeters) in length. It has a rounded head with a bill that curves downward slightly. At rest, the flicker appears light brown with bold black bars on the darker back and wings, has black spots covering the beige chest, and sports a flared pointy tail. In flight, however, its striking white rump and brightly colored undersides becomes visible, and its tail flares broadly. Two different forms occur in different regions of the United States: the yellow-shafted in the East and the red-shafted in the West. The two forms are distinguished by the color under the tail and underwings. The red-shafted also has a red mustache, whereas the mustache of the yellow-shafted is black. Despite their color and geographical habitat differences, the two forms are considered a single species by the American Ornithologists Union because they commonly interbreed where their ranges overlap in the western Great Plains of North America. Only the yellow-shafted northern flicker is found in Alabama.

In Alabama and the rest of North America, the breeding season occurs from March to June. Like other woodpeckers, northern flickers drum by rapidly hitting solid objects with their beak to communicate with each other. Males will drum and use various displays such as head- and body-bobbing “dances” to court females and signify their territory to other males. Birds in urban areas also drum on highly reverberating materials like metal gutters around houses to intensify their signal in the early spring mornings. Male flickers drum early in the morning to assert dominance and demonstrate their strength to females.

Northern Flicker Once paired, males and females will work together, using their strong, stout beaks, to excavate nest cavities in dead trees, old wooden poles, fence posts, or even house siding. Females lay typically between 3 and 12 eggs on chips of wood left from the nest excavation. Like most woodpeckers, northern flicker eggs are pure white with a smooth glossy surface. Their eggs are the second-largest of North American woodpeckers, exceeded only by the slightly larger pileated woodpecker. Females and males take turns incubating the eggs for 11 to 16 days and feed the nestlings after they hatch by regurgitation. Young birds fledge about four weeks after hatching and grow to sexual maturity the following year. During the winter, Alabama is home to both resident and migrating flickers; only a small population stays around to breed in spring and summer. Birds that remain likely produce two sets of offspring. After the fledglings leave the nest, the abandoned holes are used by other birds, such as the eastern bluebirds, and some mammals.

Although woodlands are their preferred habitat, northern flickers also are commonly found in suburban areas and parks. These birds are a great example of birds that have adapted to living in human-made habitats. Homeowners have reported northern flickers trying to nest behind shingles or the boarding of houses. Unlike many woodpeckers, the northern flicker frequently forages on the ground. It preys primarily on insects but will also eat fruits, seeds, berries, and nuts. The bird uses its long barbed tongue, which can dart out two inches (50 millimeters) beyond the end of the bill, to snatch insect prey. Ants make up almost half of the insect diet, and flickers will break into ant colonies to feed on nutritious larvae underground by hammering into dirt the same way other woodpeckers do on tree trunks. The northern flicker is also a natural predator of the European corn borer moth, which is responsible for more than $1 billion in annual crop losses in the United States alone. In addition to eating ants, the bird also rubs its feathers with ants, which secrete a chemical known as formic acid, to protect itself from parasites and aid preening.

The northern flicker is a common bird with stable populations and is of no management concern in Alabama or North America.

Further Reading

  • Moore, William S., John H. Graham, and Jeff T. Price. “Mitochondrial DNA variation in the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus, Aves).” Molecular Biology and Evolution (1991): 327-44.

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