Find more flickers
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.