Many of Minnesota’s migrant songbirds here in the Northland are either already gone or are preparing to leave. As of just a couple of weeks ago I was still seeing resident hummingbirds at my feeders, but the feeders are mostly lonely looking now. And while a straggler hummer or two have shown up in the last week for a quick drink, none of these birds are staying put for long. After all, Mexico and Central America are a long ways off, even for a bird.
Northern flickers, one of our most unique species of woodpecker, are flocking and getting restless to depart on their migration to warmer climates in the southern United States. Yet -- unlike hummingbirds -- they’re still here, but not for much longer. Vocal and energetic, flickers can be observed gathering together in tight-knit groups as they fly about in treetops and forage on the ground.
While northern flickers do find Minnesota to their liking, we only get to observe this special species during the season-of-plenty. Indeed, we won’t see a flicker hopping around on a snow bank or noisily crying out their steady, strong, and familiar call in the dead of winter.
You may have already noticed that flocks of flickers have begun gathering together as they prepare to migrate. And you might have also noticed when observing flickers that they spend a considerable amount of time on the ground behaving much like American robins do. That is, hopping about our backyards and other short-grass clearings searching for food. And what are they looking for? You’re right if you guessed insects, but specifically it’s mostly ants that flickers are hunting for.
Unlike all other North American woodpeckers that do most of their hunting for food by cascading up and down the trunks and limbs of trees, flickers are more content, probably more adapted, at digging into the soil with their chisel-like bills to unearth ants and other insects to eat. Once a treasure-trove of ants is discovered, flickers use their long barbed tongues to lick ’em up.
Obviously, when the annual freeze occurs and frozen sod is covered by snow and ice, finding ants and other insect goodies becomes difficult if not impossible, so flickers, like yellow-bellied sapsuckers, migrate southerly until more suitable conditions are encountered for finding food. These two seasonal resident woodpeckers leave behind woodpecker relatives that stay put—downy, hairy, pileated, and red-bellied woodpeckers are here year around, to name some.
Of all Minnesota’s woodpecker species, flickers are among the most striking looking woodpecker. Diagnostic traits include the dark black bib on their breast, white rump patch, black spots on their mostly brownish bodies, and bright yellow undersides of both wing and tail feathers. Flickers are relatively large, too. Up to 12 inches in length with close to a 20-inch wingspan, flickers are easy to distinguish from other woodpeckers.
They also have a behavior that is somewhat “un-woodpecker-like.” Whereas most woodpeckers typically perch on the trunks and limbs of trees by leaning against their stiff tail feathers, flickers normally perch like most perching songbirds do, that is, upright. This behavior and posture sometimes lead to misidentification if the observer is expecting flickers to move about on trees like other woodpeckers normally do.
There was a time when the northern flicker species was separated by the color phases of the aforementioned wing and tail feather undersides. The eastern race of northern flicker is often referred to as the yellow-shafted flicker, whereas the western race is named for their reddish undersides, the red-shafted flicker.
But the fact is that both races can and do widely hybridize and so are no longer considered separate species. Even so, both races of the northern flicker differ somewhat in appearance. Males of the eastern race have black mustaches and red napes, while the western race have red mustaches and no discernible nape. As well, the eastern race is mostly brownish and the western race is mostly grayish.
Flickers, named so because of their call, “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is a delightful backyard bird. Beautifully plumaged, energetic and vocally interesting, it won’t be long until we’ll need to wait until next spring for their anticipated return, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.