Monday, August 9, 2010

Northern Flickers

By Susan Thurn,
CNHM Director of Education

A whole host of flickers darted away from my vehicle as I drove down the road. The white rump and yellow tail feathers always make me smile. It is early August every year that the phenomenon occurs in which we observe flickers flying away from our vehicles as they leave the roadsides. It is perhaps a surprise to find a woodpecker being scared up from the ground rather than the trees, but northern flickers eat ants and beetles, digging for them with their unusual, slightly curved bill.

The northern flickers are foraging along roadsides mostly for ants. This bird species eats more ants than any other bird species in North America. Their long, barbed tongue laps up the insects off the ground. They hammer at the soil the same way other woodpeckers hammer into wood. By going underground they can eat the nutritious ant larvae as well. They also will eat flies, moths and butterflies, and in winter they add fruits and seeds to their diet.

Northern flickers have several interesting behaviors. The reason we see so many northern flickers this time of year is they are one of the few woodpeckers that migrate south for the winter. Also, unlike other woodpeckers, when flushed from the ground, flickers will choose thin horizontal branches to perch upon rather than tree trunks.

Northern flickers know their numbers. In spring and summer, rivals for a mate sometimes participate in a “fencing duel,” pointing their beaks up, bobbing their heads, and drawing a figure eight pattern in the air while calling their repeated “wicka” calls – all while the ladies look on.

Finally, flickers are known for their behavior called “anting” in which flickers allow ants to crawl up on their wings. There are different theories as to why this happens: one is that the ants’ formic acid is used as a fungicide or insecticide against feather or skin parasites or fungus. Another speculation is that anting is a comfort activity that stimulates the skin during a summer molt.

There are over 100 names for the northern flicker, including yellowhammer, gaffer woodpecker, wake-up, wick-up, and gawker bird. Not only do they have some fun names, but flickers are entertaining birds to watch. When we hear a drumming on a metal section of our house, it is often a flicker. When we see a feather on the ground with a yellow shaft, it is a flicker. How lucky we are to enjoy this bird species so often! Explore and wonder from your own back yard.

For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

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