Bird of the Week: Northern Flicker

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Bird of the Week: Northern Flicker

Species: Northern Flicker (Yellowhammer, various other names), or Colaptes auratus

Family: Picidae (Woodpeckers)

Star sign: Libra

Rating: 11/10

Ideal Date: Playing in the dirt

Compared to the average woodpecker, the Northern Flicker is an odd fellow. Most woodpeckers, when they’re hungry, will take to the tree trunks and use their sturdy beaks to snatch bugs from amidst the tree bark. But Northern Flickers don’t fit in, nor do they want to fit in; these loud and flashy friends are easy to recognize as they forage for bugs on the ground, digging through the dirt and using their barbed tongues to slurp up ants and worms. Of course, they are still woodpeckers and they still peck wood — they excavate their houses with their beaks and sometimes, when they want to communicate or warn off their enemies, they’ll drum on the loudest object they can find!

These wonderful, colorful friends come in two flavors: “Red-shafted” and “Yellow-shafted.” There are a few minor differences between their appearances, but the most salient and eponymous one is the color of the shafts of their feathers. Yellow-shafted flickers, which are found in the eastern U.S., have yellow shafting and under-wing feathers, whereas Red-shafted flickers, which are found in the western U.S., have red-orange shafting and under-wing feathers. These bright-colored feathers are used during mating rituals and to defend territory. What fashionable fellows!

Not only does the Northern Flicker have lots of outfits, but it also has lots of names. This weird, winsome woodpecker can be found year-round in most of the continental U.S. (including here in Portland), and people from every corner of the country have all sorts of nicknames for the birds. In fact, the Northern Flicker has more than a hundred distinct “common” colloquial names, more than almost any other bird! In the south, the Northern Flicker is known as the “Yellowhammer.” Other names with less frequent use include “Harry-wicket,” “Yarrup,” “Gawker Bird,” “Gaffer Woodpecker,” and “Clape.” What whimsical words! This strange and striking bird has captured the imaginations of Americans everywhere!

The Northern Flicker can be found in all sorts of environments and are well suited to urban areas like Reed. If you want to spot one, its appearance is iconic and difficult to mistake. Flickers have uniformly tan-colored bodies with white rumps and greyish heads, and their torsos have black polka-dots as well as a black crescent-shaped bib on the breast. The Red-shafted Northern Flickers we have out here have the iconic red under-feathers and shafts, and males also have patches of red feathers near their beaks. Flickers are slightly larger than robins, with pointy, slightly-curved beaks that are good for pecking. They can often be spotted foraging on the ground or, paradoxically, sitting at the very tops of trees, looking down on the world and letting out loud, screaming staccato calls. Next time you see one, consider joining a great American tradition and come up with a new, silly nickname for this lovely bird!

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