Flickers are distinctive birds that stand out from the many smaller, drabber birds that flit through the shrubs and trees during this migration season.
Northern flickers are blue jay-sized woodpeckers with brown backs. They have black bars on their wings, each with a large white rump patch visible only when flying, and a black crescent bib above a speckled breast.
In Minnesota, we usually only see the yellow-shafted form of the northern flicker, that when overhead flashes golden-yellow from under its wings and tail. Both sexes have a red crescent on the back of the head, and the male has a black mustache. The flicker is easy to recognize in flight with its deeply undulating, roller-coaster flying pattern.
Flickers are the only woodpeckers in North America that commonly feed on the ground, searching for ants, beetles, crickets and other insects. About 75 percent of its food is animal matter. The remainder is plant material. Fruits from Virginia creeper vines, dogwood shrubs and wild plum trees are some favorites. Seeds of clover, grasses and ragweeds are also in the mix. Usually living in open country, flickers favor farms, orchards, scattered woodlots and partly wooded parks of towns and cities. Banding records reveal northern flickers that have lived for more than 10 years.
Flickers are summer residents throughout Minnesota. They begin migrating in late August and continue into early November. Some stragglers are present into December. A few individuals stay through winter. The range of the northern flicker is from the tree limit in Alaska and Canada, south to the Gulf states and Cuba. Most winter in the southern portion of their range.
For some reason, flickers have a tough time during migration. Many observers, while out walking or biking in late September or early October, have noticed dead flickers along roadsides. No doubt these birds were doing something called anting along the thoroughfares and were hit by passing cars. A common belief is that some birds let ants crawl into their plumage because the insects help control parasites.
Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.