Northern flicker at home in Whatcom County

Like other woodpeckers the northern flicker could park itself on a tree trunk and hammer away in search of food but it prefers to punch the ground with its long bill for its favorite meal — ants. When found, the flicker will use its barbed tongue to scrape up those tasty morsels.

The most common woodpecker in Washington state and a Whatcom County resident, the northern flicker also will eat other insects as well as berries, seeds and fruit.

“Though common, the northern flicker has beautifully patterned plumage and is always a pleasure to watch or view closely through binoculars,” says Paul Woodcock, president of the North Cascades Audubon Society.

There are two sub-species of flickers, the yellow-shafted and the red-shafted, though scientists once thought they were two separate species.

Both have mostly brown coloring with bright flight feathers, black tails and white rumps. How can you tell them apart? In flight, the underside of the adult female red-shafted’s wings look reddish while the yellow-shafted’s looks, you guessed it, yellow. The yellow-shafted female also has a red crescent at its nape.

Another identifying mark is found on an adult male red-shafted, which has “red ‘mustache’ marks, more properly called malars, on both sides of the face behind the bill,” according to Woodcock.

What’s more, you’re more likely to see red-shafted flickers here because they’re found west of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, he adds, though the yellow-shafted does make an appearance.

“On this year’s Bellingham Christmas Bird Count, 299 northern flickers were counted. Of these, 294 were red-shafted, three were yellow-shafted and two were intergrades, which means that they were a mixture of the two plumages resulting from interbreeding between the two sub-species,” Woodcock says.

Northern flickers make their nests by digging cavities in diseased or dead pine, cottonwood and willow trees. Both male and female incubate their clutch of five to eight eggs for about 11 days and both will feed their young, which leave their nests after about three weeks to a month.

And while they are common in Washington, their numbers have dipped slightly because of increasing competition from European starlings for nesting holes.

Sources: Paul Woodcock; “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” by David Allen Sibley; Birdweb.org; Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu