Midwinter Flickers and Colorful Woodpeckers

Flicker – In the eastern U.S., Male flickers have black moustaches in addition to the red nape patch and yellow feathers.

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Flicker – In the eastern U.S., Male flickers have black moustaches in addition to the red nape patch and yellow feathers.
Flicker – In the eastern U.S., Male flickers have black moustaches in addition to the red nape patch and yellow feathers.

By Jim Low

What do you suppose is the most popular wildlife-based activity in Missouri and nationwide? If you guessed deer hunting or bass fishing, you missed the mark.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 survey of outdoor recreation showed that a little more than 1 million Missourians engaged in fishing and spent $505 million doing so.  Missouri’s 576,000 hunters spent $773 million on their sport.  That’s big. But 1.7 million Missourians reported watching wildlife, and they spent $1.2 billion on their hobby, including buying bird food.

I thought of this yesterday, when I bought my 10th 40-pound bag of sunflower seeds since October.  Squirrels get their share of our sunflower largess, but most of that 400 pounds has disappeared down the throats of finches, juncos, doves, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, wrens, nuthatches and blue jays.  It’s amazing that such tiny animals can consume so much food.

Red-Bellied – Red-bellied woodpeckers are slightly smaller than flickers.  The reddish-brown tinge on their bellies doesn’t live up to promise of their name.
Red-Bellied – Red-bellied woodpeckers are slightly smaller than flickers. The reddish-brown tinge on their bellies doesn’t live up to promise of their name.

Sunflowers are only part of what we provide.  Cracked corn, millet, sorghum and thistle seed also are on the menu, and I have lost count of how many suet cakes we have gone through.  I would guess it’s more than 50 store-bought cakes, plus several pounds of dense, high-energy fat from deer that I shot.  I don’t want to know how much we will spend feeding birds by the time the nectar feeders come out of storage in the spring.  All I know is that the show is well worth the price of admission.

We used to believe we fed birds to help them get through the winter.  But our friend, the late Jim D.  Wilson, who was Missouri state ornithologist for many years, informed me that was an illusion.  He said birds have plenty of natural food and don’t need handouts from people.  People feed birds, he said, because they love seeing them and want to bring them close enough for a good view.

Lately I’ve been getting a great view of some of my favorite birds, woodpeckers.  I have had a soft spot in my heart for Northern flickers since I was 9 years old and rescued one that had probably had flown into a window or a tree limb and then got so cold sitting in the snow that it couldn’t fly.  We brought it indoors, and an hour later it flew away, apparently as good as new.  That hour of close contact with the pigeon-sized bird made a lasting impression on me.

Our house in the woods has always had an abundance of downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Even the big pileated woodpeckers that frequent our woods pay regular visits to our suet feeders.  But in the past, we hardly ever saw flickers and never a red-headed woodpecker.  This year, for some reason, several flickers have put us on their daily feeding rounds.  This prompted me to set up my camera and tripod.  My office window looks out on several feeders, so I can continue to work, reaching out to touch the shutter release when birds show up.

Hairy – Hairy woodpeckers are smaller than flickers or red-bellies.  However, they are larger than downy woodpeckers and have longer, stouter beaks.
Hairy – Hairy woodpeckers are smaller than flickers or red-bellies. However, they are larger than downy woodpeckers and have longer, stouter beaks.

Woodpeckers are a particularly attractive group of birds, but for my money, none is more handsome than the flicker.  It’s also the most widely distributed in North America, with a range extending from north-central Alaska to Nicaragua and from Nova Scotia to Cuba.  Although there is only one species, the flicker shows a surprising variety of color phases across its range.

Eastern flickers are commonly called yellow-shafted or golden-winged flickers or yellowhammers, on account of the yellow shafts and undersides of their flight feathers and the bright yellow shafts of their tail feathers.  Their heads are gray, except for a red band on the nape of the neck.  Their most endearing feature is a black moustache, which only males have.

Out West  flickers’ wing and tail feathers are red instead of yellow, so they are sometimes called red-shafted flickers.  Their heads, necks and throats are uniformly gray, except for males’ moustaches, which are red.  Both sexes lack the red nape patches of their eastern relatives.  In the Southwest, male flickers also have red moustaches.  Both sexes have rusty brown caps, and gray cheeks and throats.  Otherwise, they look just like their neighbors farther north.

The bodies of all three varieties are dappled with jet-black spots.  Their backs are barred, and they have white rump patches that are seen only in flight.  The flicker’s final dramatic touch is a striking black chest patch, which is present in both sexes and all regions.  These are called “gorgets,” a reference to a piece of 18th century armor designed to protect the wearer’s throat.

Downy – Smaller size and delicate beaks distinguish downy from hairy woodpeckers.  Otherwise, the two are very similar.
Downy – Smaller size and delicate beaks distinguish downy from hairy woodpeckers. Otherwise, the two are very similar.

Flickers differ from most other woodpeckers in that they spend much of their time foraging for ants and other insects on open ground, often in company of robins or bluebirds.  In areas where trees are not available, they will nest on the ground like nighthawks or killdeers, scooping out shallow depressions in which to lay their eggs.  Our house is surrounded by forest, which is why we haven’t seen much of them before.  I have no explanation for their appearance in numbers this year.

Pileated – The pileated is Missouri’s largest woodpecker – up to 20 inches tall.  It’s raucous, “kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk!” sounds like Woody Woodpecker’s wacky call.
Pileated – The pileated is Missouri’s largest woodpecker – up to 20 inches tall. It’s raucous, “kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk!” sounds like Woody Woodpecker’s wacky call.

Now if I can just figure out how to attract red-headed woodpeckers, we will have all the species commonly seen in central Missouri.  That might be a tall order, since they favor farm land with dead trees standing in the open.  But we can hope!