The Northern Flicker

Not a rare bird, but one that’s hard to photograph.

The Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus, is a strikingly beautiful bird that’s found throughout the continental U.S. and Canada, mostly in wooded areas, and is here in Minnesota year-round.

Although it’s a woodpecker (note the impressive beak) it feeds mostly on the ground – in fact its favorite food is ants. It’s hard to get a good photo of a bird pecking around in the dirt, even if you manage to get close enough. And when not feeding, it hangs out high in the trees. So opportunities for a good shot are limited.

But sometimes in winter, a storm coats the trees with heavy ice and snow, and covers the ground, and things get difficult for flickers. On one such day I spotted this fellow (males have the black stripes near the beak) low in a tree in my back yard, waiting out the storm and grabbing a few sunflower seeds from our feeder.

As luck would have it, I had my camera already set up out on the back porch, with the big lens, so when I saw this beautiful bird within range, my heart rate went up. I was able to get just a few good shots before he took off.

There 2 subspecies groups: the yellow-shafted and the red-shafted. The “shaft” part is under the tail feathers, not visible in these photos, but the red patch at the nape of the neck means this one is a yellow-shafted. The exotic colors (most woodpeckers are black and white) and fabulous speckled markings make this bird a real standout on a gray winter day.

I’d like to lure him back, but they’re not common in residential areas. And for whatever reason – maybe competition from other woodpeckers – flickers seem to be losing interest in hammering into tree trunks for food, while having good success on the ground. Maybe in a hundred thousand years or so, evolution will have them even more more ground-oriented and looking quite different. But I hope they keep the crazy red, orange and pink.

5 Replies to “The Northern Flicker”

  1. A bird that was unknown to me before this article. As usual, Jim, expertly written and illustrated by some fantastic images of the bird. Being ready to take the shot was a great piece of luck although being prepared is not really being lucky! Thanks for enlightening me!

  2. Great images, Jim! I don’t have the patience for bird photos. These are outstanding! Also, very informative.

    1. Sharon, it’s definitely a game of patience and strategy. Just walking around with a camera and a big lens is unlikely to succeed.

  3. another of my favorite birds & great up-close capture! we have a few near us who compete w stellar’s jay, but mostly just hear them, and never had a chance to actually get my camera ready. i did get some pix while staying on a golf course – main problem wasn’t only the bird’s flickering behind tree branches, but also dodging those hard round eggs when they went off course

  4. To me, every bird is hard to photograph. I don’t think Northern Flicker is common here in California, but I don’t live close to wooded areas and when I go to those areas I’m not paying attention to birds. The photograph came out really well and the snow I think helps it pop up.

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