Featured Animal: June 2016
By Steve Zanoni and Dr. Nicki Frey
Identification and Biology
The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a large woodpecker (11-12 inches). Unlike many other common woodpeckers it has a black and tan speckled back, with a black and white spotted belly that gives it an overall brownish appearance. Upon closer inspection one will notice it has a black breast band and a white rump. In the west the northern flicker has a grey face, and the males have a red “mustache”. In flight, one can see red coloration under the wings, and a white patch on their rump. The eastern version of the northern flicker has a brown face, red markings on the back of its head, yellow coloration under the wings, and the males have a black mustache. The northern flicker is found year-round throughout the United States, parts of Canada and Mexico. Flickers can be found in any habitat that has a few trees that can be used for cavities, particularly in the suburban woodlands, but prefers open, wooded areas. Flickers are known to migrate from the northern part of their range to the southern part for winter each year.
The northern flicker spends most of its time on the ground where it uses it’s down curved bill to root out ants, its predominant food source, and other insects. Flickers have a long barbed tongue that it uses to capture and eat insects out of the holes that it pecks in wood. In the fall, flickers will also eat nuts, berries and other fruit. Like other woodpeckers, flickers will climb trees and drum on objects. They also nest in cavities in trees 5-20 feet off the ground. Both the male and the female help to excavate the nest. Once the female lays 5-8 eggs, the pair will take turns incubating the eggs for about 15 days. The young leave the cavity about 4 weeks after hatching.
Sources of Conflict
Drumming and drilling holes are the two most common problems people will encounter with the northern flicker. Drumming is used as a means of attracting a mate, communication, and defending their territory. Drumming is caused by the flicker hitting its beak repeatedly against a tree, log, or any other object that will amplify the sound. Northern flicker ordinarily won’t create holes when drumming! When drumming they prefer a loud hollow object that will project their call the most distance. Home owners can often observe a flicker drumming on metal gutters or drain pipes. When a drumming object is successful for a male flicker he will return to it year after year. While their drumming may most often be a source of loud noise in the spring, it can cause damage when the drumming occurs on siding, eaves, and roofs.
Northern flickers drill holes in wood to find insects and other invertebrates. When a northern flicker starts drilling small holes in siding or other wood surfaces it is usually a sign of an insect infestation. Food holes drilled by a flicker are usually about the size of a dime and drilled in straight horizontal lines. A flicker will also drill a hole for a nest cavity. This hole will be roughly the size of the flicker itself. Flickers select dead trees that are soft inside to excavate to create a hole. Sometimes, they may be attracted to wood siding or wood shingles on a home as a potential place to build a cavity.
There are several ways to manage flicker behavior, including frightening devices, exclusion, and natural diversions. However, scaring a flicker away from an active nesting cavity (one with eggs or live young) is illegal! The most effective strategies combine 2 or more methods. While other methods have been reported, such as banging pots and pans, or squirting the bird with a water pistol, these methods are not long-term solutions, require a person to be present, and will not deter a bird that as acclimated to a suburban or urban setting.
There are many devices advertised as successful at scaring away birds, including woodpeckers. Most are seldom effective. The best frightening devices will only work for a limited time and only if the flicker hasn’t already become attached to the object.
- Hang Mylar tape or balloons in the vicinity of the flicker activity. Place the tape so that
- Models of predators such as owls, hawks, and snakes are ineffective.
- There has been some reported success from motion active devices that sound a distress call, followed by a predator’s cry, such as a hawk. Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests BirdXPeller is one possible device.
Many effective methods are those that prohibit the flicker from accessing the target area.
- Preventing access to an area can also be accomplished by covering it up with a sheet, tarp, burlap or netting.
- ¾ inch plastic mesh netting can be installed over an area, leaving 3” of space between the netting and the damaged surface.
- Netting should be installed tight, so that it does not flap, or become tangled, which might accidentally trap a bird.
- If there are only a couple small target areas, hardware cloth or sheet metal can be attached over the target area.
- If an active nest cavity is found wait until after the family group leaves the nest and then close it up before other critters start to use the cavity.
- Drumming sounds may be dulled by placing a soft cloth or blanket under the area where the drumming occurs, or temporarily filling in a targeted pipe with cloth (remember to remove this during rain!).
A natural way to prevent flicker activity on your house, whether it be drumming or drilling, is to create access to natural elements that can be used, while using exclusion and frightening methods.
- Allow more snags, or dead standing trees in the area. Flickers will use them for drumming and nesting, and snags are great places for them to find insects.
- If no dead trees are in the area another option is to provide a nest boxes, this will prevent the flicker from attempting to build a cavity nest in your house.
- If Northern flickers are looking to a house as a food source, consider hanging a suet bird feeder in your yard. This is a food source for woodpeckers that can be placed in a suitable location.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds Bird Guide. 2016. Northern Flicker.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2016. Woodpecker control methods.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2016. Living With Wildlife: Woodpeckers.
Sibley, D. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds (Second ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.