The Bird Word: Find Northern Flickers When You Find Their Friends

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle

A northern flicker clings to the trunk of an evergreen tree. As the bird makes its way up the trunk, he is searching for insects. (Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle)

My children (all grown men and one grown woman) have learned to tolerate my love of the wild birds and will sometimes point out interesting sightings.

“There’s a whole herd of birds out there, but they’re just starlings,” my eldest son said, pointing out the window into the side yard grass.

“It’s a murmeration, dear, a murmeration of starlings,” I said, trying to impress him with my very limited knowledge of the particular names of groups of birds. “Do you see the flicker?”

“There’s no … ” he said doubtfully before he turned back to look again. The boy has an eagle eye and a hunter’s sixth-sense, he rarely misses anything, “ … wait, there is a flicker. How did you know?”

I know because the flickers like to hang out with the starlings and the robins and dine together. Once I discovered that, I no longer see a flock of common American robins or a murmeration of invasive European starlings and turn away bored. I look deeper into the picture and try and spot their familiar companion, the northern flicker.

Although the flicker is a type of woodpecker, the flicker spends a great deal of time on the ground, searching for insects, fallen fruit, seeds and, their favorite, ants. Flickers eat more ants than any other North American bird. Their tongue extends three inches beyond their beak, making them ideal wood-boring ant eaters.

How do you tell a male flicker from a female flicker? By the mustache, of course. The women won’t wear them, only the men.

The different varieties of flickers include the red-shafted flicker of the West, the yellow-shafted flicker of the East and the gilded flicker of the Southwest.

The red-shafted flicker have salmon-pink underwings and the males wear red mustaches.

The yellow-shafted flickers carry yellow underwings, have a red patch on the back of the neck and the males wear plain black mustaches.

The gilded flickers have yellow underwings and the males wear a red mustache.

I have photographed a flicker in flight in my own yard sporting a bright red mustache, whose underwings were clearly yellow with a flash of orange on the outside. My guidebooks tell me that all three forms of northern flicker will interbreed, causing a confusing variety of colorations called an “intergrade.”

When the flicker flies you’ll notice a startling flash of a bright white triangle on the rump as he glides from tree trunk to open lawn. Looking for that flash of white at the tail will also help you pick a northern flicker out of a great murmeration of starlings when they are startled from the lawn.

My Toledo friend swears by the peanut-filled suet cakes to attract flickers.“Put a couple of those out and you’ll soon have a flock of flickers,” he said.Flickers nest in dead wood in a tree, snag or pole. You can do a flicker a favor by putting up a nestbox. It is suggested that you pack the flicker nest with wood shavings to help the flickers feel more at home.If you want to keep the starlings from taking over the flickers’ house, you’ll have to make a few design alterations. Google “flicker nest box” and you’ll find a host of free plans.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

The next Great Backyard Bird Count is scheduled for February 18-21. If you have participated in the bird count in the past I would be interested in talking with you about your experiences. Send me an e-mail at kz@tds.net.

For more information on the GBBC, go to www.birdsource.org/gbbc/.

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer who enjoys watching and photographing the wildlife in action in her own backyard in Cinebar. Contact her via e-mail at kz@tds.net.