Image by Dan Sudia

Colaptes auratus

The Northern Flicker is a common and widespread woodpecker over much of North America although it is a relatively rare and local breeding bird in Texas. It occurs in two distinct races which are easily distinguishable in the field and which were formerly considered separate species. The eastern race, the “Yellow-shafted” Flicker, ranges from the Atlantic coast west to the Rocky Mountains and the more western “Red-shafted” Flicker is found from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast (A.O.U. 1998). These two races interbreed along a relatively narrow zone that runs from southern Alaska south to northern Texas (Moore & Buchanan 1985). These hybrids are intermediate in color between the races. For example, a hybrid male can have pumpkin gold shafts while male “Yellow-shafted” Flickers have yellow shafts and male “Red-shafted” Flickers have salmon shafts (Moore 1987, Moore & Price 1993).

Although the Northern Flicker is somewhat restricted in Texas as a breeding bird, it is widespread in the state on migration and in winter. Unlike many North American woodpeckers, northern populations of the Northern Flicker are highly migratory and individuals have been known to travel more than 2000km (1300mi) from their breeding to wintering areas (James & Neal 1986).

DISTRIBUTION: The distribution of the Northern Flicker in Texas is somewhat complex due to the fact that both the breeding “Yellow-shafted” and “Red-shafted” Flickers are flooded by migrants (including hybrids) during the non-breeding season. The actual breeding distribution of the Northern Flicker is more restricted in Texas than in any other of the continental states (Price 1995). The TBBAP project found that the breeding population is generally confined to three areas; the eastern quarter of the state (east of longitude 96), the northern Panhandle, and the Trans-Pecos Mountains. The majority of records away from this area were listed as possible and, in all likelihood, represented migrant birds. However, scattered “probable” records and one confirmed record (in Navarro County at lailong 31096) were collected in the center of the state. Although Oberholser (1974) also listed isolated breeding in this area, this observation is apparently the first confirmed breeding record for north central Texas in over 60 years (Pulich 1988).

The Northern Flicker winters throughout Texas and the “Red-shafted” race reaches one of its peak winter abundances along the Canadian River Valley in the northern Panhandle (Root 1988).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE: The Northern Flicker proved to be a relatively difficult species for atlassers to confirm and only 19% of the 191 TBBAP records were confirmations. Only six of these confirmations represented active nests with eggs or young.

Its breeding season in Texas extends from early April to late July (Oberholser 1974). However, all of the TBBAP nest records were in the period from 14 May to 31 May, which gives an indication of the height of the breeding season. This species is evidently generally single-brooded, but it may occasionally raise two broods (Bent 1939, Moore 1995). The TBBAP records do not give any evidence for second broods.

BREEDING HABITAT: The Northern Flicker breeds in a variety of open woodlands and  forest edges (Harrison 1975, Kutac & Caran1994, Moore 1995). During the breeding season it forages in a variety of habitats ranging from mature pine forests to clearcuts (Loose & Anderson 1995). According to Oberholser (1974) the “Yellow-shafted” Flicker frequents woodland clearings, farms, orchards, and towns in eastern Texas while the “Red-shafted” Flicker is found in sparsely wooded foothills, mountain slopes, and canyons in the Trans-Pecos region.

The Northern Flicker is the most terrestrial of all woodpeckers and it eats more ants than any other bird (Ehrlich 1988). According to one study over half of its food consists of ants although it also eats other insects and berries (Moore 1995).

Generally it will excavate a nest hole in a tree, telephone pole, building, or similar substrate. However, a number of unusual nest sites have been reported including in haystacks, on the bare ground, and in abandoned burrows of Belted Kingfishers and Bank Swallows (Bent 1939, Moore 1995).

STATUS: Although the Northern Flicker is still a common bird it has declined precipitously throughout its range. The “Yellow-shafted” race declined by an alarming 3.2% per year between 1966 and 1993 and the “Red-shafted” race underwent an 0.8% yearly decline in the same period (Sauer et al 1996). The two most apparent reasons for this decline are competition for nest sites with the introduced European Starling and forest management practices that reduce the availability of standing dead wood for nesting cavities. Starlings are known to usurp nest holes early in the breeding cycle (Bent 1939, Ingold 1994, Moore 1995). Although Flickers often renest after starlings take over the cavity, these later nesting attempts are generally less successful than earlier ones (Ingold 1996). A variety of other hole nesting species including screech owls, kestrels (Ehrlich 1988) and Great Crested Flycatchers (Taylor 1991) also compete with the flicker for nesting cavities.

The decline is even more alarming when the flicker’s importance to the forest ecosystem is considered (Moore 1995). Some ants are wood-boring (Daly et al 1978) and by eating large quantities of them, the flickers actually protect the trees from these wood-boring insects (Bent 1939). Also, abandoned flicker (and other woodpecker) nests are used by a wide variety of animals for both nesting and roosting (Bull & Blumpton 1997, Moore 1995). Fortunately, although it is an uncommon breeding bird in Texas, BBS data indicate that this is one of the few states where the Northern Flicker’s population has remained relatively stable.

Text by David E. Fantina (ca. 1999)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists Union. 1998. Checklist of North American Birds, 7th ed. Washington, D.C.

Bent, A.C. 1939. Life histories of North American woodpeckers. U.S. National Museum Bulletin, no. 174.Washington, D.C.

Bull, E. L. and A. K.Blumpton. 1997. Roosting behavior of post-fledging Vaux’s Swifts in northeastern Oregon. Journal of Field Ornithology 68:302-305.

Daly, H. V., J. T. Doyen and P .R. Ehrlich. 1978. Introduction to insect biology and diversity. McGraw Hill, New York.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Harrison, H.H. 1975. A field guide to bird’s nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Ingold, D. 1994. Influence of nest-site competition between European Starlings and woodpeckers. Wilson Bulletin 106:227-241.

Ingold, D. 1996. Delayed nesting decreases reproductive success in Northern Flickers: implications for competition with European Starlings. Journal of Field Ornithology 67:321-326.

James,D. A. and J. C. Neal. 1986. Arkansas Birds. The University of Arkansas Press, Fayettville.

Kutac, E. A. and S. C. Caran. 1994. Birds and other wildlife of south central Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Loose, S. S. and S. H. Anderson. 1995. Woodpecker habitat use in the forests of southeast Wyoming. Journal of Field Ornithology 66:503-514.

Moore, W. S. 1987. Random mating in the Northern Flicker hybrid zone: implications for the evolution of bright and contrasting plumage patterns in birds. Evolution 41:539-546.

Moore, W. S. 1995. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). In the Birds of North America, no. 166 (A. Poole and F. Gill eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Moore, W. S. and D. B. Buchanan. 1985. Stability of the Northern Flicker hybrid zone. Evolution 39:135-151.

Moore, W. S. and J. T. Price. 1993. The nature of selection in the Northern Flicker hybrid zone and its implications for speciation theory. Pp. 196-225 in Hybrid zones and the evolutionary process (R.G. Harrison ed.). Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, U.K.

Oberholser, H.C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Price, J., S. Droege, and A. Price. 1995. The summer atlas of North American birds. Academic Press Inc., San Diego.

Pulich, W. M. 1988. The birds of north central Texas. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Root, T. 1988. Atlas of wintering North American birds. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sauer, J. R., B. G. Peterjohn, S. Schwartz and J. E. Hines. 1996. The North American breeding bird survey home page. Version 95.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD. (Accessed 30 August, 1998).

Taylor, W. K. and M. A. Kershner. 1991. Breeding biology of the Great Crested Flycatcher in Central Florida. Journal of Field Ornithology 62:28-39.

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