The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 6: Meet the Northern Flicker, Matisse of the Woods

Dear Wood Folk,

It was enthrallment at first sight when I saw a northern flicker (colaptes auratus) pecking my yard for ants. My first thought was that Matisse painted these birds with their contrasting swaths of black and varied taupes, red or black spots and streaks that look as if they were applied directly from the tube. And then there are the white feathers for that extra pop. On our side of the Rockies we have the yellow shafted for even more color:

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker Painting
What I See

The somewhat heart shaped marking on the back of the head is why I chose the flicker to be the star of our Valentine’s day diary. Males have “mustaches” on the sides of their face too. The fellas in our pictures are male. These black ‘staches would be absent on a female.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker Plant Allies

You may find flickers about anywhere in Haliburton from the schoolyard, into the woods, and even marsh edges. Keep an eye on the ground. They are the only woodpecker you’ll spot on the ground often. And of course they can be found scaling the usual woodpecker haunt – dead trees full of meaty morsels.

They also nest in these dead or diseased tree trunks and branches. Aspens and poplar, as well as pines and willows may be favored. The couple may excavate a new nest or reuse last years home (possibly not their own!) Occasionally, they may use an earthen burrow abandoned by a belted kingfisher. Unlike the nuthatches and chickadees we recently covered, the inside of the flickers nest is minimalist. It’s a simple bed of woodchips.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

Ants make up almost half of their diet. While they eat other insects too, ants make for more than food. Similar to how some bird species use antimicrobial plants, flickers use the formic acid from the ants to help rid themselves of parasites.

Especially in the winter, flickers will eat berries, nuts, and seeds. These are not limited to bayberry, dogwood berries, our many cherries, elderberry, honeysuckle, pigweed/amaranth, purslane, raspberry, staghorn sumac, sunflowers, thistle seeds, Virgina creeper, and wild grapes. And here we have another fan of poison ivy berries as well!

If you have certain non-native honeysuckle you might turn their feathers pink or red. I’m sure they’d prefer we stick to native plants.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

How to Attract Northern Flickers

Ants being their favorite food, leave ant nests alone and avoid wiping out colonies if you can help it. If you have a carpenter ant invasion and “deal with it” you may notice less or no flickers the next year. (I wish I’d known earlier, because this happened to me!) Keep those dead trees and dead branches around but a ways from your residence when possible, and keep your home clean and in good repair to avoid ant problems (carpenter ants seek out damage). A chonky visible dead branch poking out of your yard may help attract both ants and flickers.

Flickers may eat from a suet feeder, or go for sunflower seeds, peanuts, corn, and perhaps fruit. They may also visit a bird bath.

There is a population decline in flickers; a major reason being the Van Gogh of birds, European starlings, competing for nesting sites. Another reason to leave the dead trees, and even construct nesting boxes in their favor. You can find nesting box dimensions for flickers and others in this pdf from Audubon.

Next month we’ll meet some waxwings. But it’s April I am looking especially forward to. We’ll be talking about warblers for the first time. I am going to post every warbler I saw in 2020 on our Instagram and I’ll provide a checklist and some tips so we can spot even more together in 2021! They’ll be arriving soon after the diary is published.

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