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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

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.

Jane Kim Mural
Merlin Bird ID app

Keys to identification Help

Woodpeckers
Woodpeckers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Flickers are fairly large woodpeckers with a slim, rounded head, slightly downcurved bill, and long, flared tail that tapers to a point.

  • Color Pattern

    Flickers appear brownish overall with a white rump patch that’s conspicuous in flight and often visible when perched. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers are bright yellow, for eastern birds, or red, in western birds. With a closer look you’ll see the brown plumage is richly patterned with black spots, bars, and crescents.

  • Behavior

    Northern Flickers spend lots of time on the ground, and when in trees they’re often perched upright on horizontal branches instead of leaning against their tails on a trunk. They fly in an up-and-down path using heavy flaps interspersed with glides, like many woodpeckers.

  • Habitat

    Look for flickers in open habitats near trees, including woodlands, edges, yards, and parks. In the West you can find them in mountain forests all the way up to treeline.

Range Map Help

Northern Flicker Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Male (Red-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Red-shafted)
    • Barred upperparts and spotted underparts
    • Black bib on upper breast
    • Red malar (moustache) (black in east)
    • © cdbtx, Monroe, Washington, April 2008
  • Yellow-shafted male

    Northern Flicker

    Yellow-shafted male
  • Female (Yellow-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Female (Yellow-shafted)
    • Brown face with gray crown
    • Red crescent on nape (absent in west)
    • Commonly forages on ground, unlike other woodpeckers
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008
  • Male (Red-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Red-shafted)
    • Bright white rump (obvious in flight)
    • Tail black above
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 2008
  • Male (Yellow-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Yellow-shafted)
    • Brown face with gray crown
    • Black malar (moustache) (red in west)
    • Barred upperparts and spotted underparts
    • Red crescent on nape (absent in west)
    • © fotobird1, Massachusetts, March 2007
  • Female (Red-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Female (Red-shafted)
    • Plain gray and brown face
    • Red shafts to flight feathers (yellow in east)
    • Long, sturdy bill
    • More often seen on ground than other woodpeckers
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 2008
  • Male (Red-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Red-shafted)
    • Gray face with brown around eye
    • Red malar (moustache)
    • Brown back with horizontal black bars
    • Red shafts to flight feathers (yellow in east)
    • © Bill Corwin, Washington, July 2008
  • Male (Red-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Red-shafted)
    • Gray face, brown around eye, red malar (moustache)
    • Black bib on upper breast
    • Breast tan with black spots
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 2008
  • Male (Red-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Red-shafted)
    • Tail red below (yellow in east)
    • Spotted underparts
    • © JoanGeeAZ, Tucson, Arizona, November 2008
  • Male (Yellow-shafted)

    Northern Flicker

    Male (Yellow-shafted)
    • Yellow shafts to flight feathers (red in west)
    • Brown back with horizontal black bars
    • Red crescent on nape (absent in west)
    • © Brian Oyer, New York, March 2007

Similar Species

  • Adult female

    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

    Adult female
    • Red cap (and throat in males)
    • Black and white striped face
    • Black and white barred back, black wings with white line down side
    • Black bib, patterned underparts
    • © Robert J. Baker, Virginia, March 2007
  • Adult

    Eastern Meadowlark

    Adult
    • Streaked brown back and wings
    • Bright yellow breast with black V
    • Pale face, black, white, and yellow crown
    • Western Meadowlark similar
    • © Ed Schneider, Williamson, Tennessee, February 2009
  • Adult male

    Gilded Flicker

    Adult male
    • In U.S., only likely in Arizona
    • Gray throat and cheek with contrasting brown cap
    • Back paler, with thinner barring
    • Red malar, oval black breast patch
    • Yellow, not red, on flight feathers
    • © Eric Rosenberg, Phoenix, Arizona, April 2007
  • Adult female

    Gilded Flicker

    Adult female
    • In U.S., only likely in Arizona
    • Gray throat and cheek; female lacks mustache stripe
    • Golden brown cap contrasts with gray cheek
    • Yellow, not red, on flight feathers and tail
    • Back paler with thinner barring
    • © Eric Rosenberg, Phoenix, Arizona, April 2007
  • Adult female

    Red-bellied Woodpecker

    Adult female
    • Red nape and crown
    • Pale, unspotted underparts and face
    • Black and white barred back
    • © Gary Mueller

Similar Species

Northern Flickers are browner than Red-bellied Woodpeckers, which have a black-and-white barred back and bright red crown. The Gilded Flicker of southern Arizona looks like a mix between yellow-shafted and red-shafted Northern Flickers: a plain brown crown and gray face paired with yellow shafts to the flight feathers.

Regional Differences

North America has two easily distinguished races of Northern Flickers: the yellow-shafted form of the East, which occurs into Texas and the Great Plains, and the red-shafted form of the West. The key difference is the color of the flight-feather shafts, which are either a lemon yellow or a rosy red. Yellow-shafted forms have tan faces and gray crowns, and a red crescent on the nape. Males have a black mustache stripe. Red-shafted forms have a gray face, brown crown, and no nape crescent, with males showing a red mustache stripe. Hybrids look intermediate and are common at the edges of these two groups’ ranges.

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.

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

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!

You Might Also Like

Watch NestCams to see flickers at their nests – and share your comments!

Flicker Wars, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick

Female Flickers Display, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick

When Flickers Bicker: A letter from a BirdScope reader

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