Late last September, I saw the first Northern flicker of the season passing through my overgrown field in Maine. His undulating flight is always a give away as is the brilliant yellow splash of his under-wings and his sharp staccato call. For the next couple of weeks these birds hunted on the ground and graced the tree branches with their presence (they don’t hug the trees like other woodpeckers do), and then they were gone, migrating south. During their brief bi-annual stay I noted that they landed in the crab apple trees to feast on tart red berries. I won’t see them again in Maine until late spring. But because I knew that I was returning to Abiquiu for a few months, I looked forward to spending the fall and winter with these birds.

Last year I had three regulars that kept me busy feeding them suet from late autumn through the winter. When I didn’t see one flicker after my return to Abiquiu I became alarmed. These birds are insectivores and therefore vulnerable to irresponsible insecticide/herbicide use. I then learned that herbicide pellets were being dropped by air to kill off the junipers, the only trees that are well adapted and common in this area.

Just yesterday, January 1, I heard the first hammering and glimpsed flicker clinging to the suet cage on my porch as he downed great hunks of fat. I was so happy to welcome him back, this creator of holes and homes…

Unfortunately this year, I have noticed a drastic decline in the variety and number of birds that have visited me here in Abiquiu. Not only has flicker been absent, but I no longer have downy and hairy woodpeckers snacking at my feeding stations. Checking in with Audubon I learned that 48 percent of the Southwestern birds are disappearing. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, since 1966 these woodpeckers have experienced a dramatic decline.

Audubon also informed me that it is projected that by the end of this century two thirds of the bird population throughout the country will be gone, a truly bone chilling statistic.

In the east, the Northern Flicker has yellow under – wings; in Abiquiu, his wings are bittersweet or deep sunset orange. In either eastern or western incarnation (same species) this is a magnificent bird with startling apparel (and when the two interbreed there are interesting variations). With a long sharp and gently curved beak, a brownish/gray head/nape slashed in red (in the males), a black bib and scalloped breast feathers that look like spotted eyes when seen up close, a white flush of tail feathers, these birds are a stunning sight to behold.

Unlike other woodpeckers, flicker forages on the ground. Forty – five percent of the flickers diet consists of ants and tasty larvae that they unearth by hammering into the dirt with their curved beaks. In the winter months they eat nuts, seeds fruits and berries and suet.

I am fascinated by the fact that in addition to eating ants they use their formic acid to help preen their feathers to keep them free of parasites. It is a perpetual source of amazement to me that birds have developed such remedies to help keep them healthy. The term “bird brain” appears to be more useful when referencing humans than actual birds.

During courtship, two males may display by facing each other and bobbing their heads in time while drawing a figure eight pattern in the air, an observation I have never been privy to. The males defend their territory in two ways, either by spreading their tails to reveal brilliant colors or more commonly by drumming on the loudest object they can find including metal drainpipes! Drumming is also thought to be associated with mating rituals. These woodpeckers like to nest in tree cavities that they excavate in about two weeks. Chips line the nest in which 6 -8 eggs are laid and incubated for less than two weeks. The chicks are fed by regurgitation and fledge in about a month after hatching.

If you haven’t paid much attention to the flickers that migrate through our areas, this is the time to enjoy their visits.

Northern Flicker. submitted photo

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