Northern Flickers: A More Grounded Woodpecker

Author: Steve Ellis | 07/12/21

Northern Flicker

A Northern Flicker surveys the ground on Whidbey Island. Photo by Jann Ledbetter.

Note: Steve Ellis is a Land Trust member and Whidbey Island naturalist who is a regular contributor to the Habitchat blog. In this post, he writes about the Northern Flicker.

Journey into any local forest or woodlot and you’re likely to hear a sharp “Kee-yer.”  That’s the call of the Northern Flicker, the second-largest woodpecker species left in North America and the most common on Whidbey and Camano Islands.

Flickers are 12 to 14 inches long, with a wingspan of 20 inches. The back and upper wings are brown, while the underside of the wings is a pinkish red. A black “bib” on the chest with black spots below and a white rump round out the field marks. Males sport a red “mustache” mark on the face.

Open woodlands are flickers’ preferred habitat. They adapt fairly easily to suburbia, provided nest trees, weedy places, and areas of short grass exist.

Flickers spend a good deal of time on the ground, searching for ants, beetles, and other invertebrates. They eat more ants than any other North American bird species and spend far less time on tree trunks hunting for prey than other woodpeckers. These elegant birds are well-adapted to this “Un-woodpecker’ behavior.  The long bill is slightly downcurved for probing anthills. Sticky saliva on the tongue makes escape impossible for entrapped ants.  The birds’ brown coloration provides camouflage when foraging on the ground.

The Un-woodpecker also captures moths and other large insects in the air, and they consume more berries and other small fruits than other woodpecker species.

Breeding starts in late February. Once a pair is formed, the male chooses a tree or snag and begins to create a nest cavity. The entrance hole tends to be oval and about 4 inches in diameter; a cavity is hollowed out to a depth of 10 to 18 inches for a nest that will hold six to eight eggs. Upon hatching, the young are fed by both parents. They’ll leave the nest cavity in approximately 25 days.

Flickers may choose to create a new nest hole the following year. Roosting cavities are also hammered out. This means many large holes are available afterwards to other creatures. Northern Saw-whet Owls, Tree Swallows, and other cavity nesters incapable of cutting a cavity for themselves readily use old flicker holes.

Humboldt’s Flying Squirrel and the sprightly Douglas Squirrel also make use of these abandoned cavities. Some bat species do as well, especially the Silver-haired Bat. Whidbey naturalist Sarah Schmidt of Bats Northwest pointed to a study conducted in southern British Columbia. Not only do individual Silver-haired Bats hibernate in flicker-made holes, but small sets of females of the species use them for maternity colonies.

Many species rely on the flickers’ ability to carve out holes in trees. How different our forests would be without the dynamic Un-woodpecker!

Northern Flicker cavity hole

A Northern Flicker hole makes great habitat for other wild creatures as well. Photo by Steve Ellis.


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