County Wildlife Corner: Northern Flicker: Colaptes Auratus

By Diane Dragotto Williams
My first introduction to a Northern Flicker was when a red-shafted male flew into my high A-frame windows and knocked itself unconscious. With a wingspan 19 to 21 inches and 12 to 14 inches in length, this large woodpecker is often found in open spaces. However, it spends considerable time on the ground foraging for ants and insects in summer, and berries and seeds in winter. Flickers often go after ants underground, hammering at the soil the way other woodpeckers drill into wood. Their tongues can dart out 2 inches beyond the end of the bill to snare prey!  They are found in woodlands, forest edges, and open fields with scattered trees, as well as city parks and suburbs. In the western mountains they occur in most forest types, including burned forests, all the way up to the treeline. You can also find them in wet areas such as streamside woods, flooded swamps, and marsh edges.

As I held this beautiful creature, seemingly lifeless, my heart sent prayers for life to flow back into its body. Admiring its striking colors and patterns, I reflected on his beauty, including a gray face, a red moustache (males only), and a brown forehead, crown and nape, and a black crescent bib surrounded his head. Buff to grayish feathers filled his body underparts with heavy spotting, ending in a white rump patch. But the most amazing surprise under the brown back, and dark barred wings, was bright salmon-red to red-orange underwings and undertail! What a brilliant sight it must display in flight, as I learned later.   Holding this handsome, black-scalloped plumaged bird for nearly an hour, I kept hoping for revival, and studied its habits in a book.  In breeding season, you can hear the “wick-er”, “wick-er” notes, but year round, the flicker makes a single, loud “klee-yer” or “clearrr” call.  Spring courtship brings noisy, animated behavior. Rivals face off in a display called a “fencing duel,” while a prospective mate looks on. Two birds may face each other on a branch, bills pointed upward, and bob their heads in time while drawing a loop or figure-eight pattern in the air, calling with a rhythmic “wicka”.  Solitary nesters, they’re monogamous and lay 3 to 12 white, oval eggs in snags, nest boxes, and even buildings. Couples excavate nest holes in dead or diseased tree trunks, or large branches in a cavity 6 to 20 feet above the ground. The entrance hole is about 3 inches in diameter, and the cavity is 13-16 inches deep. The cavity widens at bottom to make room for eggs and the incubating adult. Inside, the cavity is bare, except for a bed of wood chips for the eggs, and chicks to rest on. Once nestlings are about 17 days old, they begin clinging to the cavity wall instead of lying on the floor. Unlike many woodpeckers, flickers often reuse cavities that they or another species excavated in a previous year. Like most woodpeckers, Northern Flickers drum on objects as a form of communication and territory defense. In such cases, the object is to make as loud a noise as possible, and that’s why woodpeckers sometimes drum on metal objects.

Waiting for the rise and fall of breath to return to his body, the improbable happened, and his head that at impact, had bobbed loosely back and forth, suddenly grew taut, and he opened his eyes, and stared up at me. Wobbly at first, he perched on my deck railing, overlooking the forest floor.  As a wildlife artist in oils, I went back to my studio, leaving the bird to rest on its own, so it could fly back to its family.  What happened next in that following hour was a gift, as my new friend, flew to a nearby tree, climbed deftly up it, and gazed intently at me, through my third-story window.  With a gentle expression, he remembered me, and in his own quiet way, came back to let me know he made it.  I’ll never forget that special moment in time when an animal being and human being shared a celebration of life!

Wildhaven Ranch is a wildlife sanctuary in Cedar Glen that gives programs to the public by appointments only.  Bears, Bobcat, Coyotes, Deer, Eagles, Falcon, Hawk, Owl and Raccoons are seen “up close and personal” in guided tours.  For reservations, call (909) 337-7389.

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