Put down this paper for a moment and picture a time when you witnessed large flocks of migratory birds. Maybe it's snow geese, sandhill cranes, Franklin's gulls or even cedar waxwings. Now try and insert woodpeckers into that image. Somehow it just doesn't register for most of us. You see, nearly all of the woodpeckers in North America (there are 22 species north of Mexico) are considered non-migratory. That is, the birds are content to sit out winters in place foraging in trees for the necessary sustenance keeping them alive. There is one bold exception, however, and large flocks of them are currently in our area, numbering easily in the thousands. That bird is the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).
The animals are conspicuous in parks, cemeteries, golf courses, farm yards, or anywhere there are open treeless expanses. Unlike their more arboreal cousins which rarely venture far from a tree limb, northern flickers are more likely to be seen foraging on the ground, not unlike robins. The reason for this is explained by the bird's preferred food - ants. And this is very likely the impetus behind this animal's migratory habits. As cooler weather limits aboveground ant populations, the birds head south to stay ahead of the game.
Flickers diverge from their relatives in various other ways too. Most woodpeckers (all in our area) mix black and white feathering in various fashions. Flickers, in contrast, are based with tans and grays. Other woodpeckers have conspicuous bristles where their bills meet their heads. This, the experts tell us, keeps wood debris from the nostril area. Flickers largely lack these. Its cousins all sport a straight, stout, chisel like bill for excavating wood. While still large, the flicker's bill is more delicate with a slight curve. This is in keeping with its anting habit.
North Dakota sits in an ecological intersection separating east from west for several species complexes; flickers being just one example. Large glaciers divided the population thousands of years ago. Over time the isolated birds developed unique traits. In the east the flicker is labeled "yellow-shafted," its underwing and tail being that color. Westerly birds are "red-shafted." Once the glaciers receded, the birds met at a contact zone which cuts through our state and still exists. Along this front - which stretches from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico - hybrids readily occur, forming all sorts of weird combinations of markings and pinkish feathering. Several years ago the divided populations were thought to be unique species but further research has united them into one, with two subspecies.
Northern flickers are nearly a foot long with tan colored backs hatched with horizontal black barring. Its belly is a creamy off-white with a thick array of round black spots. At the top of its breast sits a wide black collar, unique among woodpeckers. A white rump patch is readily visible when the bird is flying as well as the yellow/red shaft color mentioned above.
Males and females of most woodpeckers are hard to separate. Not so with flickers; head markings will tell the tale. A crescent of red is seen on the nape of both sexes but only the males sport a large black malar patch, or moustache. At least that's the way it is for the yellow-shafted subspecies. In red-shafted birds, the male's moustache is red while both sexes lack the nape patch.
Flickers cover a huge area of the continent from Alaska to Cuba, inhabiting virtually anywhere there are trees. The only forests that appear off limits are large unbroken tracts with limited bare ground or meadows. Again, it's probably due to the unavailability of ground forage.
With the large number of northern flickers currently moving through our area, one is hard-pressed to miss this conspicuous woodpecker. Listen for its call, a loud clear "EEah." And watch for the robin-like hops of this ground-hugging anteater. Several weeks from now winter will be upon us and the large flocks will be gone. Yet somewhere in our area there will likely be someone seeing a northern flicker. Not quite all the birds, it seems, get the memo.