• Female
  • Male
  • Male intergrade

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Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus
Most birds in this group are adapted for climbing and perching in trees and range widely in size. The feet of most species have two toes pointing forward and two pointing back, a special adaptation for trunk-climbing known as a zygodactyl arrangement. The order includes families as diverse as the puffbirds and the toucans, but only the woodpecker family is found in Washington:
Woodpeckers have many adaptations that allow them to perch upright against tree trunks and feed on insects under the bark or within the wood of the tree itself. Further specialization has produced many aberrant forms with different behavior and feeding habits. Most use their strong claws and stiff tail feathers to brace themselves against tree trunks as they climb. The specially adapted skulls of woodpeckers allow them to pound hard on tree trunks to excavate nesting and roosting cavities, to find food, and to communicate and attract mates. A special arrangement of bones and elastic tissues allows woodpeckers to extend their long tongues and extract insect prey from the holes they chisel with their strong, sharp beaks. The principal food of most woodpeckers is insects, especially the larvae of wood-boring beetles. A few woodpeckers feed on ants, nuts, or flying insects. Many also take a small amount of fruit. Most woodpeckers have rounded wings and an undulating flight pattern. The plumage of most is some combination of black and white, though brown is not uncommon. Many, especially males, have small patches of red or yellow on their heads. Although they may appear to damage trees, woodpeckers are generally good for tree health because they feed so heavily on wood-boring beetles. Most woodpecker species are monogamous, and many form long-term pair bonds. The nests are usually lined with nothing but the woodchips created by excavating the nest cavity, which is excavated by both members of the pair. Both sexes incubate the eggs, with males generally taking the night shift. Both sexes also feed and tend the young.
Common resident.

    General Description

    Northern Flickers are unusual among North American woodpeckers in that their general coloration is brown rather than black and white. Their backs are brown with black barring, and their chests and bellies are light tan with prominent clear black spots. Their tails are black, and they have white rumps. There is a broad, black band across the upper chest. Two forms occur in Washington: the Red-shafted, and less commonly, the Yellow-shafted. The flight feathers of Red-shafted Flickers have reddish-orange shafts, and their wings and tail are reddish-orange below. Red-shafted Flickers have gray heads, throats, and napes, and their foreheads are brown. Male Red-shafted Flickers have red moustaches; the moustaches of females are pale brown. Typically, neither sex has a colored nape crescent (but see below). The flight feathers of Yellow-shafted Flickers have yellow shafts, and their wings and tail are yellow below. The heads of Yellow-shafted Flickers are gray above, and their faces and throats are brown. Males have black moustaches; females have none. Both males and females have red nape crescents. Intergrades between the two forms are common, and some Red-shafted birds in Washington have red nape crescents.


    Northern Flickers can be found throughout most wooded regions of North America, and they are familiar birds in most suburban environments. They need some open area and do not nest in the middle of dense forests, but they breed in most other forest types. Outside of the breeding season, they also frequent other open areas, including suburban lawns and parks, grassland, sagebrush, and even sand dunes.


    Unlike most other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers are principally ground feeders, though they also forage on tree trunks and limbs. They have a strongly undulating flight pattern, and they can be easily identified in flight by this pattern and their prominent white rumps. Their whinny call sounds somewhat like laughter. They also give a distinctive call that is often transcribed as klee-yer.


    Northern Flickers feed principally on ants but also take other insects and some fruit, seeds, and berries.


    Northern Flickers typically excavate nesting cavities in dead or diseased pine, cottonwood, or willow trees. Males do most of the excavation with some help from females. Both incubate the 5 to 8 eggs for about 11 days, then brood the newly hatched young for about 4 days more. Both sexes feed the young, which leave the nest after 24 to 27 days. The parents continue to feed the young once they fledge, and soon the young begin to follow the adults to foraging sites and gather their own food.

    Migration Status

    Northern Flickers are partially migratory. Red-shafted Flickers tend to over-winter on their breeding grounds or migrate shorter distances than Yellow-shafted Flickers, but both tend to withdraw from higher elevations and winter in the western Washington lowlands. Yellow-shafted Flickers, which are strongly migratory, become more common in Washington, especially along the outer coast, in winter. This increase is probably due largely to Yellow-shafted Flickers that have migrated to Washington from Alaska and the northern Rocky Mountains.

    Conservation Status

    Northern Flickers play an important role in forested ecosystems by excavating nesting and roosting holes that are subsequently used by other birds, animals, and reptiles that cannot make their own. They are abundant and widespread throughout their range and are the most common woodpecker in Washington. The spread of residential development, roads, and the increasing fragmentation of the forest have increased the amount of habitat for Northern Flickers. However slight declines have been observed recently, which may be due to competition with European Starlings for nest holes .

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Common and widespread throughout Washington, Northern Flickers breed across most of the state, especially in residential areas, city parks, and gardens. Starting in September, they tend to concentrate in the lowlands on both sides of the Cascades, especially in areas with abundant berries. Winter is when the Yellow-shafted form is most likely to be seen, particularly on the outer coast.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastCCCCCCCCCCCC
    Puget TroughCCCCCCCCCCCC
    North CascadesCCCCCCCCCCCC
    West CascadesCCCCCCCCCCCC
    East CascadesCCCCCCCCCCCC
    Canadian RockiesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    Blue MountainsUUUCCCCCCCCU
    Columbia PlateauCCCCCCCCCCCC

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

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