Watch for unique ground-feeding woodpeckers

PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID BROWN
Two male flickers perform territorial behavior on a lawn in South Williamsport on April 10.

PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID BROWN Two male flickers perform territorial behavior on a lawn in South Williamsport on April 10.

Think of a bird that you would expect to see on the ground. Perhaps you might think of the American robin or some sort of sparrow. But what about a woodpecker?

The northern flicker is a common woodpecker that feeds on the ground and primarily eats ants. It is the most widespread and abundant woodpecker in North America.

The northern flicker is our second largest woodpecker, behind the pileated woodpecker.

Overall, northern flickers are brown and gray. They have a black bib and spotted underside. The wings and back are tan with black barring. Northern flickers have a conspicuous white rump patch visible in flight. Males have a mustache stripe, which females lack.

In the eastern United States, northern flickers have yellow feather shafts. Ones in the west have red feather shafts. These two types used to be considered separate species but are now the same.

I have observed flickers locally that have some red feather shafts, which likely is due to diet, perhaps from non-native honeysuckle.

Yellow-shafted flickers have a red patch on the back of the neck that the red-shafted variety does not have. There are no similar species in eastern North America.

Northern flickers are found locally year-round but are less common in winter. Though ants are the preferred diet, they also will eat berries, fruit and seeds.

Pennsylvania gets a big influx of migrating northern flickers in April. They often are found in forest edge habitat and frequently are seen in residential areas, so this is a species you certainly can expect to see in your yard, especially in the spring.

Courtship and territorial displays for flickers involves head swaying. Last year in South Williamsport, I saw two male flickers perched on the same branch, facing each other and moving their heads in what resembled a mock sword fight. Perhaps a female was watching nearby.

Northern flickers are cavity nesters and will excavate their own holes. They also will reuse old nest sites. I recently observed a pair of flickers at a nest site that was used last year as well. Unlike most other woodpecker species, they will use nest boxes.

The northern flicker is the state bird of Alabama, where it is given the colloquial name “yellowhammer.” That is the only state with a woodpecker as the state bird.

Threats to the northern flicker include habitat loss and competition with the invasive European starling for nest sites.

April and May are two of the most exciting months for birding, so get outside and look for northern flickers and more than 200 other bird species that you can see locally in the spring.

Brown is an avid local birder and photographer and is vice president of the Lycoming Audubon Society. He may be reached via email at davidebrownpa @gmail.com.

The Lycoming Audubon Society is a chapter of the National Audubon Society with responsibility for members in Lycoming and Clinton counties. Information about the society and events can be found at http://lycomingaudubon. blogspot.com. The public is invited to share local sightings and join discussions at https://www.facebook.com/groups/lycomingAudubon.

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