Feeder Talk

Find more flick­ers

Birds & Blooms - - Contents - BY RACHAEL LISKA

With eye-catch­ing and dis­tinct spot­ted plumage, north­ern flick­ers are ar­guably the most beau­ti­ful wood­peck­ers in North Amer­ica. But their unique be­hav­iors and char­ac­ter­is­tics are what re­ally ex­cite bird­ers across the coun­try.

Sim­i­lar to downy and hairy wood­peck­ers, north­ern flick­ers are pri­mar­ily in­sect eaters, but they are harder to en­tice to back­yard feed­ers. Flick­ers for­age for bee­tles, flies and moth cater­pil­lars, but ants are their fa­vorite treat, and they work hard to get them. Us­ing their curved bills, they dig un­der­ground (the same way other wood­peck­ers ham­mer into wood) where the pro­tein-packed lar­vae live.

“I think it’s so neat that they pre­fer to feed on the ground—it’s dif­fer­ent from other wood­pecker be­hav­ior,” says Emma Greig, head of Project Feed­er­watch ( feed­er­watch.org) at the Cor­nell Lab of Or­nithol­ogy. “They like to feed on ants and use their long sticky barbed tongues to cap­ture them. They’re like the anteaters of the wood­pecker world.”

In fall and win­ter, flick­ers dine on wild berries and seeds, in­clud­ing poi­son ivy, dog­wood, sumac, wild cherry, el­der­ber­ries, bay­ber­ries and sun­flower seed. This is the best time of year to lure them into your back­yard. “En­tice flick­ers with peanut hearts or sun­flower seeds on a plat­form, the ground or a large hop­per feeder,” says Emma. “They like for­ag­ing on the ground, which is why ground and plat­form feed­ers are the most ideal.

“When in­sects are scarce, any type of suet is a rea­son­able op­tion for flick­ers,” Emma says. “They visit hang­ing cages or suet at­tached to a tree.”

If you don’t see flick­ers at your feeder right away, keep try­ing. “Even if you can’t en­tice them with store-bought food, cre­ate a flicker-friendly habi­tat if you have an open area of lawn in which they could for­age,” Emma says. “Just be sure not to use pes­ti­cides if you want to at­tract flick­ers. Bird­baths are an­other op­tion—all species need wa­ter—or of­fer a flicker-sized nest box in the spring.” At the nest­watch.org web­site, look for spe­cific bird­house de­tails.

Bird­ers wait­ing for a back­yard visit can look for north­ern flick­ers in al­most any patch of open woodland across the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., in­clud­ing parks, wooded sub­urbs, stream­side woods and marsh edges. Keep your eyes low and you may flush one out from for­ag­ing. Or let your ears be your guide—lis­ten for their loud, ring­ing call of re­peated short yelps or the quick, rhyth­mic drum­ming (up to 25 times per sec­ond) used to com­mu­ni­cate and claim ter­ri­tory.

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