Northern Flickers in a Ritual Duel

On a bare branch near the top of a pecan tree this morning – a cool, gray, wet morning with clouds just beginning to break up and blue sky showing through – two Northern Flickers performed an interesting duel that appeared as much like a ritual dance as a confrontation. From perches close together on the branch, the two Flickers repeatedly lunged at each other and stabbed with their very long, sharp bills, making low wicka-wicka-wicka sounds as they fenced.

Meanwhile, a third Northern Flicker perched higher, among the withering leaves of the pecan, not taking part in the action, but staying near by.

All three were Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers – fairly large woodpeckers whose habits and appearance are quite different from other woodpeckers – with rich tawny-brown faces and throats, bold-spotted breasts, gray cap and a red crescent on the nape of the neck. The two dueling Flickers were males, with black moustache stripes. I couldn’t see the third Flicker well, but suspect it was a female. Both of the dueling Flickers showed deep-yellow feathers on the underside of their wings.

I first noticed them when I heard a Flicker’s loud kleer call, then saw three fly across the road ahead of me and into the upper branches of a pecan tree near the side of the road. There, the two males perched several inches apart on the same branch, more or less facing each other, and repeatedly came closer together and made the wicka-wicka-wicka sounds and lunged toward each other over and over, making flashy, circular and up and down movements with their bills. They never actually seemed to touch each other, though at times they came close.

They made these forays at each other several times, and between them retreated to the same positions and sat still. The lower one looked larger, plumper, more arrogant. It sat erect with its bill slightly raised. The one further up on the branch perched sort of stretched out sideways, and only turned to face its opponent when they engaged each other again. It looked smaller and less confident, but that may have been only my angle of view. During one bout, this smaller Flicker seemed to be forcing the larger one slightly backwards on the branch and to be winning the confrontation. Then it fell back, and they both resumed their original positions.

Each wicka-wicka-wicka encounter lasted several seconds, followed by a longer break of several seconds more, but probably less than a minute. When I left after about 10 or 15 minutes, they were still there, still dueling, with the female screened among the leaves above them.

Although we have Northern Flickers here year-round, they become more conspicuous in the fall and winter months, very often feeding in grassy yards with flocks of smaller birds.

The species account for Northern Flicker in Birds of North America Online says these mock “fencing duels” or dances play a role in territory establishment and pair formation and are most common in breeding season, but are also seen at other times of the year. The account also mentions that these dances show a great deal of variation in their movements, intensity and other characteristics, and that much remains to be learned about the dances and their meaning and purpose. Usually the duels end when one bird flies away, but the encounters can go on for hours.*

*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.

Leave a Reply