Four Northern Flickers

This month of January ended with a day that felt like winter should – cold and clear with a sharp, westerly wind, and a thin blue sky and high, feathery clouds. A beautiful day, but quiet, with very few birds, maybe because of the wind. 

Late in the afternoon, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers – even the usual suspects seemed fewer and more quiet. A Turkey Vulture drifted over and around, in and out of sight. A female Eastern Bluebird perched on a branch, feathers ruffled in the wind, and some House Finches called and one sang. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed. Three or four Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines, and a Pine Warbler sang. A bright red Northern Cardinal sat in a leafless tree, up high. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew across the road low, a tiny, flickering ball of gray-green, and disappeared into a thicket. Two little Chipping Sparrows flew up from the edge of our own front yard and hid in plain sight among the sparse leaves of wax myrtles. 

Four Northern Flickers burst up from a circle of grass in the middle of a cul de sac, white rumps and yellow under the wings and in the tail flashing brightly. Big, handsome woodpeckers seen as often on the ground as in trees, Northern Flickers can be found here year-round, but we see them much more often in winter, when some have moved south for the season. They mainly eat food found on the ground, especially ants and other insects. Mostly brownish overall, a Northern Flicker is regal in bearing, with a gray head held erect, a brown face, long, sturdy bill, and a bold pattern of colors including a black bib; a black-spotted belly; a red crescent on the nape of the neck, and a black moustache on a male. 

Although Northern Flickers are still widespread and often seen, data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show a disturbing decline in their numbers. The reasons for the decline are not known for sure, but habitat loss and competition from European Starlings for nest cavities are considered likely. “This declining trend should be viewed with concern,” according to the species account in Birds of North America Online, “because the species plays a central role in the ecology of woodland communities where it excavates many of the cavities later used by other hole-nesting species.”*

*K.L. Wiebe and W.S. Moore (2017). Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), version 2.1. In The Birds of North America(P.G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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