A Hope of A Flicker -- a Northern Flicker that is

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Frequently non-birders tell me about birds they've seen. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what they are, but more often, the untrained observer is fooled by the orange glow of late afternoon light, or seeing a bird from a weird angle, and the description comes across quite strangely. Of course, some birds have no field marks at all -- no wing bars, streaks, unusual colors or anything striking about them. Female Brown-headed Cowbirds are a prime example. The opposite of this is the Northern Flicker, which is now migrating through Nantucket in good numbers.

Flickers are big brown woodpeckers and, when hunting was less restricted, were referred to as 'partridge' woodpeckers and considered good eating. Many times they do unwoodpecker-like things, like hop around on lawns, pecking at the ground. This is often how they get noticed.

If you see a flicker through binoculars, so many things strike you about them it's hard to know where to start. From the rear, they are brown, with horizontal bars across the wings and back. The back of the head is gray but has a bright red crescent across it. From the front though, the general color is a lighter tan, but covered with big black polka-dots. Above the dots, across the throat, there is a thick black band. Male flickers have a black mustache stripe on each side of the bill.

In flight another whole bunch of characteristics jump out. When the wings open there is a blinding flash of yellow from underneath and you are suddenly aware that the rump, the patch between the tail and the back, is pure white. Flying away, you see a bounding brown bird with a big white spot on the back. Until recently, our eastern flickers were known as Yellow-shafted Flickers. The ones out west have more of a reddish color replacing the yellow and were known as Red-shafted Flickers. They actually hybridize in the middle of the country where you find birds with orange.

Flicker tail feathers are yellow with a black pointed tip, and are extremely strong. All woodpeckers brace themselves with their tails against tree trunks and without this special adaptation, the feathers would wear away quickly.

The late, great, Roger Tory Peterson describes, as a boy, finding a flicker asleep on the side of a tree. He was able to go right up to it and was awed by the variety of colors and patterns. When suddenly the bird awoke and sprang away in a blaze of yellow and black, Roger said it was one of the signal events in his young life that brought him to pursue bird study, and eventually produce his wonderful bird guides.

On Nantucket, Flickers have a bad reputation because they are known to make holes in our houses. They also annoy people sometimes by drumming on the side of a house. This illustrates another woodpecker characteristic. They don't actually have a territorial song. They mark their territory by drumming. They search for a resonant surface which will project well, and then proceed to bang away. Sometimes a metal trash can lid or chimney cap will make our Flicker appear like a super Flicker!

If the bird is just drumming, he doesn't usually make a hole. After a week or two, territorial disputes will settle down. But if a hole appears, then they are actually creating a nesting cavity in your house. Most people aren't ready for this, and there are many things done to discourage these big brown fellows. Have you noticed houses on Nantucket that have a red shingle on the side, or perhaps, a bicycle reflector will be fastened to a shingle? This follows the theory that woodpeckers are intimidated by the color red and sometimes it works. Another idea would be to put up a birdhouse that is designed for Flickers to nest in.

Flickers are often great clowns to watch. They interact socially with each other, often two or three will be arrayed around a tree trunk, bobbing and calling their "wicka-wicka-wicka" calls. Sometimes they string these calls out, echoing from the woods, sounding like something out of a Tarzan movie.

On Nantucket you can find Flickers year 'round but they become scarce in mid-winter. We found 84 on last year's Christmas Bird Count but that number shrinks in January and February. Often they become beach birds then, adapting to eat bayberries and even hopping along the seaweed lines on the beach, finding semi-dormant insects.

In March and April, more of them arrive from the south and our winter birds head up toward the tree line. Flickers nest here on Nantucket from May through July and then head south, replaced by more northern birds.

If you see a big brown bird, hopping somewhat awkwardly on the lawn, pecking here and there for ants, you have probably found a Northern Flicker. Use your binoculars to get a clear look at his wonderful plumage and watch for that flicker of yellow as he takes off. It may encourage you to be the next Roger Tory Peterson!

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444.