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northern flicker

Colaptes auratus

What do they look like?

Northern Flickers are 30 to 35 cm in length. Their wingspan is 54.1 cm, tail length is 12.2 cm, and bill length is 4.2 cm. They are the only woodpecker to have a gray-brown barred back and white rump. The male has a tan head, gray crown, red nape (back of the head and neck), black moustache, and a black cresent on the breast. Underneath, the male is light tan with heavy black spotting. The tail is black on top. In the Eastern forms, called Yellow-shafted Flickers, males have yellow underwings, while the Western forms, called Red-shafted Flickers, have reddish underwings. Females are similar in appearance but somewhat less colorful.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male more colorful
  • Average mass
    170.0 g
    5.99 oz
  • Average mass
    120 g
    4.23 oz
  • Range length
    30.0 to 35.0 cm
    11.81 to 13.78 in
  • Average wingspan
    54.1 cm
    21.30 in

Where do they live?

Northern Flickers range from Alaska eastward to Quebec, then south throughout the entire United States. Northern Flickers are migratory. They winter in the southern part of the United States and in northern Mexico. In addition, these woodpeckers are found on Grand Cayman, Cuba, and range as far south as the highlands of Nicaragua.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Northern Flickers are found in wooded areas that have stands of dead trees. They are also found in open areas, forest edges, clear-cut areas, burnt areas, agricultural lands, and residential areas.

How do they reproduce?

The breeding season occurs from February to July. The nest is made in dead tree trunks, dead parts of live trees, or telephone poles. Northern Flickers will also build nests in nestboxes. Nests are usually built below 3 meters above the ground.

There are 3 to 12 white, glossy eggs per clutch. Larger clutches have been reported, but these clutches are the result of eggs from more than one female. The eggs are approximately 3 cm by 2.2 cm and weigh 7 g. Both parents incubate the eggs for 11 to 16 days.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Northern Flickers breed each year, they may have one or two clutches within the nesting season.
  • Breeding season
    February to July
  • Range eggs per season
    3.0 to 12.0
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    16.0 (high) days

Both parents help to incubate the eggs and care for nestlings. After the nestling period of 25 to 28 days, the young remain with the parents for some time, calling to the parents to be fed. Young flickers will molt to adult plumage from June to October.

How long do they live?

The longest lifespan recorded is 9 years and 2 months for a yellow-shafted form of the Northern Flicker and 6 years and 8 months for a red-shafted form of the Northern Flicker. Most Northern Flickers probably live much less than this, maybe surviving only a few years.

How do they behave?

Northern Flickers are active during the day. They protect territories that may include small family groups. Male flickers recognize females by sight. To protect their mates or territories, birds of the same sex become aggressive towards each other.

Northern Flickers are migratory, moving between summer and winter ranges during the spring and fall.

How do they communicate with each other?

Aggressive displays such as "bill directing" or "bill poking" are used by flickers. That is, a flicker may point his bill at a rival with his head tilted forward, or actually peck at an opponent. A more aggressive display is "head swinging," whereby a flicker will use side-to-side movements of his head and body against an opponent. There is also a "head bobbing" display that may be used. Sometimes tail spreading accompanies head swinging or bobbing displays.

Flickers sing during flight. Their song is a loud "wick wick wick wick wick," while individual notes sound like a loud "klee-yer" and a squeaky "flick-a flick-a flick-a."

What do they eat?

Northern flickers mainly consume insects and invertebrates, such as grasshoppers, crickets, ants, termites, wasps, aphids, beetles and their larvae, caterpillars, and spiders. They also consume fruits in the fall and winter, as well as weed seeds, acorns, and other types of nuts.

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Northern flickers do not respond strongly to predators. They may make tentative flights around the predator or make bill-poking movements towards the predator. Young in the nest are vulnerable to nest predators such as raccoons, squirrels, and snakes. Once they reach adulthood, northern flickers are preyed upon by several birds of prey that specialize on hunting birds. In eastern North America this includes Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Northern Flickers help to control the populations of their invertebrate prey, especially ant populations. They also create nests that are later used by other cavity-nesting species of birds and by squirrels.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat

How do they interact with us?

These woodpeckers are very useful destroyers of insect pests, including European corn borers. Since they have a particular taste for ants, these woodpeckers also eliminate plant-injuring aphids which provide "honeydew" for ants.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Populations are not seriously endangered by human activity, although human activity sometimes destroys their habitat. Few conservation measures are being taken because Northern Flickers are not recognized as endangered. As a migratory North American bird they are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.


Janice Pappas (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Bent, A. 1992. Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Palmer, E., H. Fowler. 1975. Fieldbook of Natural History, 2nd ed.. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc..

Peterson, R. 1967. A Field Guide to the Birds: Eastern Land and Water Birds, 2nd ed.. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Short, L. 1982. Woodpeckers of the World, Monograph Series No. 4. Greenville, DE: Delaware Museum of Natural History.

Winkler, H., D. Christie, D. Nurney. 1995. Woodpeckers: A guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World. Sussex: Pica Press.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Pappas, J. 2001. "Colaptes auratus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 20, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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