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Brooklyn Bird Watch: February 8

Northern Flicker. Scientific Name: Colaptes auratus.

February 8, 2022 By Joseph Palmer
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Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch features a Heather Wolf photo of the Northern Flicker in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

According to the Cornell Lab, uncharacteristic of wood peckers in general, Northern Flickers spend lots of time on the ground. You can inadvertently scare them up from the ground where they might be foraging for insects, mainly ants and beetles. Like the Red Breasted Woodpecker and the Pileated Woodpecker, they have a very distinctive, unmistakable flight pattern. They fly in an undulating, up-and-down path using heavy flaps interspersed with glides. When you see it you will instantly recognize it.

Northern Flickers are large brown woodpeckers with good looking, black-scalloped plumage.

The Northern Flicker seems to have a complicated, fascinating history. First, as Wikipedia tells us, there are over 100 common names for the Northern Flicker, including, “yellowhammer” (not to be confused with a Eurasian yellowhammer), “gaffer woodpecker”, “harry-wicket”, “wake-up”, “walk-up”, “wick-up”, “yarrup”, and last but not least, a “gawker bird’. We are told that many of these names derive from attempts to imitate some of its calls.

Also, there are ten subspecies of northern flicker that are recognized, and one of those is extinct. As Audubon explains; “The extant subspecies were at one time considered subspecies of two separate species called the yellow-shafted flicker (C. auratus) and the red-shafted flicker (C. cafer), but they commonly interbreed where their ranges overlapped and are now considered one species by the American Ornithologists Union. If you aren’t confused yet, relax, Audubon clarifies this history; “This is an example of what is referred to as the “species problem”.

Also like most woodpeckers, Northern Flickers drum on objects as a form of communication and territory defense. In such cases, the object is to make as loud a noise as possible, and that’s why woodpeckers sometimes drum on metal objects. One Northern Flicker in Wyoming could be heard drumming on an abandoned tractor from a half-mile away.

I recently saw a photograph of this bird landing on a tree limb with its claws outstretched, with both wings and its tail feathers spread wide. In the sunlight the marked symmetry and coloring of the under feathers was stunningly beautiful, ranging from dark, to bright, to translucent red.
The website “Bridwatching” tells us something about this physical characteristic: “The Northern Flicker is a familiar bird throughout the lower 48 states and southern Canada. Within that wide range it occurs in two strikingly different forms, long ago considered separate species: “Red-shafted Flicker” in the west, “Yellow-shafted Flicker” in the east. The two forms differ most obviously in the color of the large feathers of the wings and tail, either red or yellow, respectively. They also differ in head pattern. In the middle of the continent, however, the forms mix, and it is common to see flickers with intermediate (orange) wing and tail color.


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