What Large Brown Spotted Bird Is Feeding on My Lawn?

If you live in southern Ontario you probably already know the answer to this one: a Northern Flicker. These large woodpeckers are often seen perched in, calling from, and nesting in trees but they don’t often eat in trees. Instead, they feed on the ground.

Photo of Northern Flicker Male Railing on NaturalCrooksDotCom
A male Northern Flicker on a railing.

We have a pair of Flickers nesting in the grassy soccer-field park not far from our home. The park turf is full of ant hills and the Flickers are pleased. They eat many of the ants. When they call from the trees edging the park, they usually just give their simple “rusty gate squeaking” call.

In the spring, however, many Flickers fly through on migration. Groups of 4 or more will perch at the top of still-bare maples or on silvered branches of long dead trees.

Flickers Calling and Flaring Tails and Wings in the Tree Tops

In spring time, I hear them calling their strung-out series of wiks call more than their simple call. You can hear the call I mean on the AllAboutBirds website if you click on the “Rolling rattle call (territorial)” link.

I’m not sure if they call like this to attract other Flickers to join them in a large group or if they are calling in some sort of competition amongst themselves.

Photo of Northern Flickers Tails on NaturalCrooksDotCom

When trying to take photos of the Flickers while they were calling like this, I noticed that they often spread their tails and open their wings wide while hopping short distances from one branch to another. I wondered if the males were trying to attract the females, until I realized that the females were also doing this.

Photo of Northern Flickers Flying on NaturalCrooksDotCom
Normally, a Flicker wouldn’t spread its wings and tail this far just to hop from one branch to another. It’s a display for some reason.

In a paper on variation in the colouring of Flickers by Wiebe and Bortolotti, the authors suggest that both males and females “expose the coloured undersides of their flight feathers in exaggerated motions….” and that the display may be “agonistic” if directed at the same sex or an attempt to attract a mate if directed at the opposite sex. They state that these theories have not been proven, however.

Photo of Northern Flickers Flying Back on NaturalCrooksDotCom
Note the white spot that is usually visible as a Flicker flies away from you.

So I don’t actually know if there is a motive behind this flaring of wings and tail. Certainly it makes the vivid yellow colouring show more clearly and from a distance. (Flickers in western parts of Canada have red under-colours, not yellow.)

Is This a Male or a Female Northern Flicker?

For some woodpeckers, like Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, a red spot on the head means the bird is the male. This isn’t true for Northern Flickers (or Pileated Woodpeckers.) Both males and females have red on their heads.

Photo of Northern Flicker Male Red Triangle on NaturalCrooksDotCom
The red on the head is often triangular.

Instead, it’s the presence or absence of a black mustache that is the easiest field mark to look for with Flickers in eastern Canada. (Out west, the moustache is red.)

Why Do Flickers Migrate?

If you have Downy, Hairy or Pileated Woodpeckers in your area, you have probably seen them all winter. They don’t usually migrate like song birds in a north-south pattern. Many Canadian Flickers, however, do.

Photo of Northern Flicker Male Dirty Bill on NaturalCrooksDotCom
This Flicker on spring migration was feeding on something under the leaves in the forest. Notice the dirty bill from probing deep.

I suspect this is because Flickers prefer to feed on prey on the ground. In the winter, this food supply can’t be reached in most of the Canadian range for Flickers so they move south. Once the ground thaws, though, they return.

Flickers living in the warmer US states often do not migrate.

What Do Flickers Eat?

Photo of Northern Flicker Male Ground Hunting on NaturalCrooksDotCom
Perhaps the red is to help other Flickers find each other on the forest floor?

When they raid an ant hill, the Flickers munch on the larvae. They also eat beetles, moths and other ground insects.

According to the AllAboutBirds website, Flickers will also eat fruit and some seeds. They’ve been seen feeding on dogwood berries, sumac, and elderberries. They will sometimes eat sunflower seeds at feeders.

Flickers can feed on insects in and on trees. They just seem to prefer to hunt at ground level.

I’ve enjoyed seeing many Flickers this spring. I just wish they didn’t trick me with their loud wikka-wikka-wikka calls into thinking they were something more unusual!


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