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Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus; aka Yellowhammer


The northern flicker is a powerful, stocky bird with a rounded head, long, flared tail that tapers to a point, and downward-curved bill. It is the only woodpecker to have a gray-brown barred back and white rump. Underneath, the male is light tan with heavy black spotting. The tail is black on top.

male northern flicker

female northern flicker

Northern flickers flash bright colors under their wings and tails when they fly, yellow in the eastern form, red in the western form. Once believed to be two separate species, it is now known that the two forms are subspecies, and that there is considerable "mixing" of the two forms where their ranges overlap.

This bird ranges from 11 to 14 inches in length, and has an average wingspan of 21 inches.

Distribution and Habitat

The northern flicker is widespread throughout North America, from Alaska eastward to Quebec and south through the entire United States. It is also found on Grand Cayman and Cuba in the Caribbean and as far south as the highlands of Nicaragua. One of the few migratory North American woodpeckers, populations in the southern and central parts of the range may remain in the same location all year round, but those at more northerly locations tend to travel southwards before the onset of winter.

Northern flickers inhabit wooded areas, open areas, forest edges, clear-cut areas, burnt areas, agricultural lands, and residential areas.


Unlike most woodpeckers, the northern flicker feeds primarily on the ground. Ants make up most of its diet, but grasshoppers, crickets, termites, wasps, aphids, beetles and their larvae, caterpillars, and spiders are also taken. Cherries and the berries of dogwood, Virgina creeper, poison ivy, sumac, hackberry, and blackgum are also important foods, as are weed seeds, acorns, and other types of nut kernels. In the fall and winter, greater than half of its food intake is in the form of fruit.


Northern flickers mate for life. Breeding takes place from February to July.

The nest is excavated, by both parents, in a dead tree trunk, dead part of a live tree, or a telephone pole; nest boxes will also be used. The territory around the nesting site is vigorously defended by both sexes, by drumming loudly against a tree and by confronting rivals in "fencing duels" in which two birds face each other with their bills pointed upwards and the head rapidly twisted and bobbed.

The 3-12 glossy white eggs are incubated by both parents for 11-16 days. Both parents feed the young until they are 25-28 days old. Young flickers will molt to adult plumage from June to October. Mating pairs often raise two broods per year.

Other Habits and Behaviors

Male flickers recognize females by sight. To protect his mate or territory, birds of the same sex become aggressive toward each other.

The northern flicker's 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."

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Piciformes
family Picidae
genus & species Colaptes auratus

Animal Diversity Web

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The Robinson Library >> Science >> Zoology >> Birds >> Order Piciformes

This page was last updated on March 22, 2018.