Three Northern Flickers

Passing one of the more thickly wooded areas in the neighborhood, I heard soft flicka-flicka calls repeated, and found a Northern Flicker in a big dead broken-off pine back in the woods a way. The Flicker was standing on a branch and stretching out almost horizontal as it made these very soft, sensual flicka-flicka calls. It did this several times – then I realized there were two more Flickers, all three perched fairly close together in the bare branches of the same dead pine. Two of the Flickers faced each other, both making these calls, sometimes flaring the tail and turning the head and bill upward, and sometimes stretching out low. The third did not seem to be calling or engaging in the same posturing, at least not while I was watching. I could see them well enough to see the black crescent on the chest and speckled breast and the shape and tail – but could not see any of the faces clearly enough to see a mustache-streak, maybe because of the light. So I don’t know if they were males or females or one or two of each.

Their behavior was similar to what’s described as a “dance” or “fencing duel,”* in which two Flickers engage in a ritual of movements and calls, while a third watches. The behavior is associated with territorial defense and with pair formation, but has been observed at other times too, and apparently occurs in different situations and different ways, and not all are fully understood. The behavior I watched did not seem as intense as some of the ritual dances are described, but was like a lower-key, maybe off-season version. When I left after several minutes, the three birds were continuing their encounter. The soft flicka-flicka calls sounded gentle and expressive, and soon faded into the shadows of the woods behind me.

* Karen L. Wiebe and William S. Moore. 2008. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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