Northern Flicker


“Brrrrrrrptap-tat-tat-tat-tat. . . .brrrrrrrrrpatap-tat-tat-tat-tat!” It was 5:30 am, and the rapid-fire hammering on metal erupted again and again as I walked my dog on an otherwise silent street.

It’s a sound I listen for each spring. A woodpecker, slightly larger than a robin, is a regular visitor to a metal chimney cover at a particular house in my neighborhood back in Medford, MA. This seems to be how this bird announces its presence in the area. It alerts other males that he’s back. It lets any females in the area know that he’s available. Then again, maybe he just likes annoying the humans that live in that house. Can you imagine what they must think? Several days in a row each spring they are awoken by the machine-gun rattle from this bird on their chimney. I can almost see the twinkle in that bird’s eye. “Brrrrrrrrrrptap-tat-tat-tat-tat,” he does it again.

This mischief is caused by a Northern Flicker (photo by dfaulder), a woodpecker occurring throughout the U.S. The bird has striking plumage with a mix of gray and buff-brown on its head and face and brown all over with black stripes on its wings and black spots on its chest. A distinct white patch on its rump stands out when it flies. In the east, flickers have a yellow wash on the underside of their wings, which is visible when they fly. Flickers in the west have red on their under-wing. Growing up, these birds were thought to be two distinct types of birds. I have several old field guides which list the “Red-shafted Flicker” and the “Yellow-shafted Flicker” separately. Today they are considered regional differences of the same bird.

A flicker’s preferred food is ants. This leads to them spend more time on the ground compared to other woodpeckers. This ground-probing results in some calling them, “Ground Peckers”.

Flickers are cavity nesters which means each year they excavate nest-holes in dead or dying trees. These holes provide a safe place to raise their young. They continue to provide important shelter after the flickers have left. Other creatures like chickadees and flying squirrels use these holes as nests and winter shelter for years to come. This is one of the reasons scientists recommend leaving standing dead trees, if they don’t create a danger. Plus, leaving some dead snags for woodpeckers to hammer on keeps them from performing their spring drumming concert on your chimney cover.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to [email protected].

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