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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Northern Flicker a frequent winter visitor to Kentucky’s backyard bird feeders

As the first day of winter approaches, and we get hard freezes and our first snows, homeowners begin feeding songbirds at backyard feeders.

Maybe the holiday spirit of sharing with those less fortunate has something to do with the timing. Cold, ice and snow, which become more frequent around Christmas, means hard times are ahead for our feathered friends. Food becomes a priority just to maintain body heat.

The Northern Flicker is common at backyard bird feeders in colder months in Kentucky (Photo by Todd Steckel, The Cornell Lab of Orinthology)

Fill up your feeders and sit back to enjoy a throng of blue jays, sparrows, wrens, juncos, cardinals and woodpeckers.

It’s the best time of the year to observe the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) up close because this distinctive woodpecker with colorful plumage, is a shy bird during the warm weather months.

Geographic Range and Distribution in Kentucky

The geographic range of the Northern Flicker includes forested areas of Alaska, Canada, most of the Lower 48 states and into Mexico and Central America, absent from Arctic Tundra and deserts.

A year-round resident in Kentucky, this woodpecker is less numerous in the heavily-forested Cumberland Plateau. Some birds move around seasonally. In winter, transients from more northern breeding areas, pass through Kentucky and may overwinter here, boosting local populations.

Size and Coloration

The Northern Flicker is not likely to be confused with other woodpecker species that come to backyard feeders.

Adults are large, measuring on average more than 12 inches in length, with a 17 to 21-inch wingspan, and weighing up to six ounces.

The Northern Flicker can be found year-round in Kentucky (Photo by Warren Lynn, The Cornell Lab of Orinthology)

Males have a brown back with dark bars, a white breast with black spots, red patches on the nape of the neck, and a black bib, sometimes referred to as a “mustache.”

The tail is dark on top, transitioning to a white rump which is conspicuous in flight. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers are bright yellow.

There are 10 subspecies throughout its geographic range and wide color variations.

The Yellow-shafted Flicker is the subspecies found in the eastern and northern U.S. The Red-shafted Flicker occurs west of Texas. The two-color variations were once considered separate species.

A widely-used common name for the subspecies found in Kentucky and throughout the southern U.S. is “yellowhammer.”

Their vocalizations are a loud ‘wicka-wicka-wicka.’


According to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., the Northern Flicker’s preferred habitat is a mix of semi-open and open lands, with some large trees nearby, rural farmland, and wooded suburban parks and yards.

Food Habits

This woodpecker forages on the ground, climbing tree trunks and limbs, and occasionally flies out to catch insects in the air.

Woodpeckers are tree clingers, adapted to climbing and feeding on trees. Most species have specialized feet and toes.

Their long tongues with barbed tips are used to probe crevices in tree bark to find insects and larvae. They have stiff tail feathers that prop them up when they climb.

The Yellow-shafted Flicker is the subspecies found in the eastern and northern U.S. (Photo by Kevin Smith, The Audubon Society)

The Northern Flicker eats mostly ants, but also beetles, termites, caterpillars, and other insects.

Many fruits and berries are consumed, especially in fall and winter, along with small seeds.

When feeding in the backyard place a tray on the ground filled with mixed bird seed that includes black oil sunflower seeds, and hang suet cakes in wire baskets. Woodpeckers are particularly fond of suet, a mixture of fat, seed and fruits.

Reproduction and Nesting

In early spring in Kentucky, Northern Flickers begin territorial calling, bantering and wing drumming.

As imagined, woodpeckers have thick, bony skulls to withstand the pounding of their chisel-like bills on tree bark and rotting wood. Feathers cover their nostrils to protect the nasal cavity from wood chips and dust.

They excavate nest cavities in dead snags of otherwise living trees, or in the limbs or trunks of rotting trees.

They use their nesting cavities to store food, and escape the brunt of cold weather, in addition to raising young.

In Kentucky, early clutches are completed by mid-April to early May, the latest by June.

Nests are typically more than 10 feet off the ground, in a small cluster of trees, along a fencerow or riparian corridor.

The female lays five to eight white eggs. Incubation is by both sexes (with male incubating at night and part of the day), for 11 to 16 days.

Both parents feed the young, by regurgitation. The young leave nest about four weeks after hatching, are fed by parents at first, later following them to good foraging sites.

In Kentucky, pairs raise only one brood per year.

Keep a sharp eye out for the Northern Flicker at your backyard feeder. Hang some suet cakes and you’ll be rewarded with some close-up views of this distinctive woodpecker.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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