Bird of the Month January 2020

A male (red-shafted) Northern Flicker.

Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus


Northern Flickers are members of the woodpecker family. They are easily recognized by their black-scalloped backs, heavily spotted breast and belly, black bib, red nape, and large bills. They are larger than a robin, nearly the size of a Mourning Dove. There are two forms: the yellow-shafted (Eastern US) and the red-shafted (Western US) where the main difference is the color of the feather shafts in the wings and tail (yellow or red). Sexes are similar except that males have red (in a red-shafted form) or black (in yellow-shafted form) “mustache” at the corners of the bill. Yellow-shafted form males also have a distinctly delineated brown and gray head while the red-shafted form is mostly gray-headed. The under tail of the yellow-shafted form is yellow with black tips while that of the red-shafted form is red-orange with black tips.

In-flight you will see a flash of either red or yellow along with a white patch on the rump.

Behavior and Habitat

Unlike most members of the woodpecker family, the Northern Flicker spends a lot of its time on the ground. That is because one of its main foods is ants and it spends considerable time digging for them with its somewhat specialized bill. This strategy is called, “anting”.

Flickers do fly as most woodpeckers do with an undulating flight; rising and falling smoothly as they intersperse periods of flapping with gliding. 

Northern Flickers build their nests by hollowing out a dead or dying tree and creating a nest inside. Both parents participate in this process and they may reuse a nest hole for several years.

Northern Flickers have a single brood each season, usually between five and eight young.

According to Cornell’s All About Birds, Northern Flickers aren’t big on bird feeders but can sometimes be attracted to nesting boxes: “Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young.”

Similar Species

Where the two subspecies overlap, significant hybridization occurs. These birds have characteristics intermediate to the two subspecies.

There are other woodpeckers that look similar including the Gila Woodpecker, the Gilded Flicker, and the Red-naped Sapsucker. However, only the Red-naped Sapsucker is found near Camas NWR. It is much smaller and sports a red chin and a distinctive red, black and white pattern on the head and lacks the spotting on the breast and abdomen.

When and where found at Camas NWR

According to the Camas NWR Bird List, the Northern Flicker is common on the Refuge in all seasons. Use binoculars to look for them in the tree rows near headquarters and in the taller brush near the south end and watch for them flying between shelterbelts.


“Northern Flickers are widespread and common, but numbers decreased by almost 1.5% per year between 1966 and 2012, resulting in a cumulative decline of 49%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9 million with 78% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 42% in Canada, and 8% in Mexico. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. They are not listed on the 2014 State of the Birds Report.”

Text by Terry Thomas. Source:

Photo by Terry Thomas.