Wild Profile: Meet the Northern flicker

Published: March 31, 2020

Male Northern flicker By Tom Reichner/Shutterstock

One of the sure sounds of spring is a Northern flicker drumming out a territorial warning. Unlike some other woodpeckers, flickers don’t drill into trees to get at insects. They prefer to pluck their choice treats—ants and beetles—directly from the ground. Sometimes, they’ll hammer down into the ground to get at entire ant colonies, and feast on the delicious larvae. Jackpot!

Know your birds: Woodpeckers of North America

Along with a strong beak, and a shock-absorbing skull that keeps them from getting brain damage—hammering is hard on the noggin—woodpeckers have highly specialized tongues. They’re long: a flicker can extend its tongue two inches or more past the end of its beak. The tongue is sticky, the better to trap bugs. (Other species have barbed tongues, to spear wood-boring insects; sapsucker tongues, on the other hand, are tube-shaped.) Woodpeckers keep their tongues—when they’re not sticking them out—folded neatly inside their heads. The tongue wraps under the lower mandible, and snakes behind the skull and past the forehead to attach at the nostril. Uncoiled, the average woodpecker tongue would make up one third of the bird’s body length; for a human, that would be like having a tongue that’s half a metre long. Quick, someone call Guinness World Records!

Northern flickers come in two colour variations, which look different enough that ornithologists once thought they were two distinct species. Yellow-shafted flickers, with yellow wing and tail feathers, stick to the east and north; red-shafted flickers, meanwhile, are in Western Canada. The two colour forms interbreed where their ranges overlap, and produce offspring with—you guessed it—orange feathers. Males are recognizable thanks to their red or black “moustaches”: stark bands of colour that run from bill to cheek.

Quiz: How much do you know about woodpeckers?

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