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Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus ORDER: PICIFORMES FAMILY: PICIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Northern Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers with a gentle expression and handsome black-scalloped plumage. On walks, don’t be surprised if you scare one up from the ground. It’s not where you’d expect to find a woodpecker, but flickers eat mainly ants and beetles, digging for them with their unusual, slightly curved bill. When they fly you’ll see a flash of color in the wings – yellow if you’re in the East, red if you’re in the West – and a bright white flash on the rump.

ML Essential Set
Be a Better Birder Tutorial 4

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
11–12.2 in
28–31 cm
Wingspan
16.5–20.1 in
42–51 cm
Weight
3.9–5.6 oz
110–160 g
Relative Size
About half again as big as a Hairy Woodpecker
Other Names
  • Pic flamboyant (French)
  • Carpintero alirrojo, Pic-palo lombricero (Red-shafted Flicker) (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Although it can climb up the trunks of trees and hammer on wood like other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers to find food on the ground. Ants are its main food, and the flicker digs in the dirt to find them. It uses its long barbed tongue to lap up the ants.
  • The red-shafted and yellow-shafted forms of the Northern Flicker formerly were considered different species. The two forms hybridize extensively in a wide zone from Alaska to the panhandle of Texas. A hybrid often has some traits from each of the two forms and some traits that are intermediate between them. The Red-shafted Flicker also hybridizes with the Gilded Flicker, but less frequently.
  • The Northern Flicker is one of the few North American woodpeckers that is strongly migratory. Flickers in the northern parts of their range move south for the winter, although a few individuals often stay rather far north.
  • Northern Flickers generally nest in holes in trees like other woodpeckers. Occasionally, they’ve been found nesting in old, earthen burrows vacated by Belted Kingfishers or Bank Swallows.
  • Like most woodpeckers, Northern Flickers drum on objects as a form of communication and territory defense. In such cases, the object is to make as loud a noise as possible, and that’s why woodpeckers sometimes drum on metal objects. One Northern Flicker in Wyoming could be heard drumming on an abandoned tractor from a half-mile away.
  • The oldest known “yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker lived to be at least 9 years 2 months old, and the oldest “red-shafted” Northern Flicker lived to be at least 8 years 9 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Look for Northern Flickers in woodlands, forest edges, and open fields with scattered trees, as well as city parks and suburbs. In the western mountains they occur in most forest types, including burned forests, all the way up to treeline. You can also find them in wet areas such as streamside woods, flooded swamps, and marsh edges.

Food


Insects

Northern Flickers eat mainly insects, especially ants and beetles that they gather from the ground. They also eat fruits and seeds, especially in winter. Flickers often go after ants underground (where the nutritious larvae live), hammering at the soil the way other woodpeckers drill into wood. They’ve been seen breaking into cow patties to eat insects living within. Their tongues can dart out 2 inches beyond the end of the bill to snare prey. Other invertebrates eaten include flies, butterflies, moths, and snails. Flickers also eat berries and seeds, especially in winter, including poison oak and ivy, dogwood, sumac, wild cherry and grape, bayberries, hackberries, and elderberries, and sunflower and thistle seeds.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–1.4 in
1.9–3.6 cm
Egg Width
0.6–1.3 in
1.6–3.3 cm
Incubation Period
11–13 days
Nestling Period
24–27 days
Egg Description
All white.
Condition at Hatching
Naked, pink skin, a sharp egg tooth at the tip of bill; eyes closed, movements clumsy.
Nest Description

Both sexes help with nest excavation. The entrance hole is about 3 inches in diameter, and the cavity is 13-16 inches deep. The cavity widens at bottom to make room for eggs and the incubating adult. Inside, the cavity is bare except for a bed of wood chips for the eggs and chicks to rest on. Once nestlings are about 17 days old, they begin clinging to the cavity wall rather than lying on the floor.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Northern Flickers usually excavate nest holes in dead or diseased tree trunks or large branches. In northern North America look for nests in trembling aspens, which are susceptible to a heartrot that makes for easy excavation. Unlike many woodpeckers, flickers often reuse cavities that they or another species excavated in a previous year. Nests are generally placed 6-15 feet off the ground, but on rare occasions can be over 100 feet high. Northern Flickers have been known to nest in old burrows of Belted Kingfishers or Bank Swallows.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Northern Flickers don’t act like typical woodpeckers. They mainly forage on the ground, sometimes among sparrows and blackbirds. When flushed, flickers often perch erect on thin horizontal branches rather than hitching up or around a tree trunk. Flickers do fly Iike most woodpeckers do, rising and falling smoothly as they intersperse periods of flapping with gliding. Early in spring and summer, rivals may face off in a display sometimes called a “fencing duel,” while a prospective mate looks on. Two birds face each other on a branch, bills pointed upward, and bob their heads in time while drawing a loop or figure-eight pattern in the air, often giving rhythmic wicka calls at the same time.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Northern Flickers are widespread and common, but numbers decreased by almost 1.5 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 46 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9 million with 78 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 42 percent in Canada, and 8 percent in Mexico. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. They are not on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

Northern Flicker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident or short-distance migrant. Flickers leave the northern parts of their range to winter in the southern U.S. Birds that breed farther south typically stay put for the winter.

Backyard Tips

Northern Flickers don’t habitually visit bird feeders, but you can find them in backyards and at bird baths. If your backyard has a mixture of trees and open ground, or if it’s near woods, you may find Northern Flickers simply by walking around the wooded edges.

Find This Bird

To find Northern Flickers, try walking through open woods or forest edges, but scan the ground. You may flush a flicker from a feeding spot up into a nearby tree. Look for the obvious white rump patch in flight. Also, be sure to listen for their loud, ringing call and their piercing yelp. In late summer, listen for the incessant yammering of hungry nestlings to find a nest.

Get Involved

Watch your feeders in winter and report your counts of birds to Project FeederWatch

Report your Northern Flicker sightings to eBird

Are you watching Northern Flickers in a city? Participate in art, cultural, and science activities through Celebrate Urban Birds!

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Explore sounds and video of Northern Flickers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive