[Published in 1939: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 264-287]
I can remember as clearly as if it were only yesterday my boyish, enthusiastic admiration for this beautiful bird, though it was between 50 or 60 years ago that my father first showed me a freshly killed flicker. I was simply entranced with the softly blended browns, the red crescent on the head, the black crescent and bold spotting on the breast, and, above all, with the golden glow in the wings and tail. Few birds combine such charming colors and pleasing contrasts. I have never lost my admiration for it, and still consider it one of nature's gems.
It, and its close relative, the red-shafted flicker, together are widely distributed over nearly all the wooded regions of North America. Consequently it is widely known and over most of its range is a common and familiar species. Its prominence and popularity are attested by the long list of vernacular names by which it is locally know. Franklin L. Burns (1900), in his monograph of the species, lists 123 such names; and later he adds nine more, bringing the list up to 132 names. These are far too many to be quoted here, and many of them are "very local or very slight orthographical or cacographical variants." I have always loved our local name "partridge woodpecker," suggestive of my boyhood days, when flickers, meadowlarks, and robins were considered legitimate game. But now the name yellow-shafted flicker seems appropriate to distinguish it from the red-shafted flicker.
The haunts of the flicker are almost everywhere in open country or lightly wooded regions; it can hardly be called a forest-loving species, though I have often found it nesting in more or less extensive deciduous woods; its favorite haunts during the summer seem to be in the rural districts among the farms, orchards, and scattered woodlots; it seems to be at home, also, in villages and small towns, and even in some of the smaller cities, where spacious grounds and gardens provide suitable surroundings. In fall and winter it is more apt to wander about in open woodlands, fields, and meadows or seek shelter in coniferous woods or swamps.
Spring.--Although many flickers remain all winter in the northern states, there is a decided spring migration of the great bulk of northern-bred birds that have wintered in the southern states. These birds gather in flocks during the late winter, and the northward movement starts with the first mild weather, the migration being largely performed during the night. Mr. Burns (1900) says that at Berwyn, Pa., the forerunners, consisting of solitary old males, appear "as early as Feb. 2 or as late as April 6, according to the promises of the season, correlating in a measure with the date at which the first frog is heard peeping. . . .
"It becomes common soon after the hardy willow has unfolded its leaves, and about the time the fragrant spicewood blossoms, when the ants, spiders and beetles become active once more, and just in the height of the arbutus season. The northward movement is far from being steady or regular, being largely governed by weather conditions." Mr. Burns calculates from his mass of data that the average distance traveled daily is about 12 miles, "varying according to season and weather conditions from 7 to 48 miles per night. It is absolutely certain that it does not move steadily night after night, but only as the weather permits or necessitates and its physical condition allows."
Flickers often migrate in companies of considerable size, in loose, scattered flocks, noisy and active, flying from tree to tree and calling excitedly. Their arrival is announced by the loud challenge call, given from the top of some tall tree, wicker, wicker, wicker, or wake-up, wake-up, wake-up, as the male challenges his rivals or invites his prospective mate to join him in courtship. This, one of the most welcome sounds of early spring, is indeed a call to "wake up," for all nature is awakening, buds are swelling on the trees, verdure is appearing in the woods and fields, the early flowers are beginning to blossom, the hylas are peeping in the warming pools, insects are becoming active, and the songs of the early birds announce that spring is here. Another spring sound soon strikes our ears, a loud, far-reaching, vibrant sound, the long, almost continuous roll of the flicker's drumming, another challenge call, a preliminary of the courtship performance; at frequent intervals, often repeated over a long period in early morning, he beats his loud tattoo on some hollow, resonant limb.
Courtship.--The courtship of the flicker is a lively and spectacular performance, noisy, full of action, and often ludicrous, as three or more birds of both sexes indulge in their comical dancing, nodding, bowing, and swaying motions, or chase each other around the trunk or through the branches of a tree. From the time of Audubon to the present day, many observers have noted and described the curious antics of this star performer. But I prefer to quote first from some extensive notes recently contributed by Francis H. Allen, as follows: "The courtship of the flicker is an elaborate and somewhat puzzling performance. Two birds face each other on the branch of a tree or cling side by side, though at a little distance apart, on the trunk, and spread their tails and jerk their heads about in a sort of weaving motion, frequently uttering a note that is peculiar to this performance, a wick-up or week-up. The head motion is a series of backward jerks with the bill pointing up at an angle of perhaps 60 degrees and the head at the same time swinging from side to side. Sometimes a short, low wuck is uttered from time to time during the performance. These bouts occur not only between male and female, but frequently between two males or two females.
"In April 1934, for more than a week I saw a trio of flickers about my house. Invariably the two females went through courtship antics together, while the male fed on the ground nearby, apparently completely indifferent to them. One of the females was much more active than the other, which usually kept a stiff pose with head drawn in, only occasionally responding with feeble head-waggings. At no time did the active female use any other display than the head-wagging, and there was never any suggestion of combat or intimidation.
"A year later, 1935, the flickers near my house behaved differently. In the afternoon of April 24, the two males were singing loudly and frequently in the woods, about an eighth of a mile away and at some distance apart. By singing I mean, of course, the prolonged laughing call of wick-wick-wick, etc. Presently they stopped singing, and one flew toward the other, stopping about halfway. Very soon the other joined him, and a long period of posturing and wick-up-ing ensued. Both birds had the black mustaches of the male. The posturing was the regular 'weaving' of the head and the fanning of the tail. The notes, after the first at least, were much subdued in tone. There were frequent intervals of quiet. The birds kept close together most of the time, often with heads only two or three inches apart, or perhaps less. They flitted about frequently, sometimes clinging to the trunk of an oak, sometimes perched on a horizontal branch, and once or twice they alighted on the stems of underbrush. After a long period of posturing, they met in a momentary tilt, and presently there was another clash after more posturing, then a third clash, and after that they separated. The same bird was the aggressor in at least two of the clashes. As often in such encounters, the attacked bird stood his ground and the attacker veered off. It was very mild warfare, if it was really serious at all.
"Two days after the bout of the two males, I saw two females engaged in the dance in one of our pear trees. It lasted only a few minutes, and I heard no notes. Not long after the dance of the two females a prolonged 'sexual flight' took place. It lasted five or ten minutes, as nearly as I could tell, with a few short intervals of resting. I could at no time determine the sexes of the two birds thus engaged, but occasionally a snatch of faint song was heard (wick-wick-wick), and I assume that they were male and female. They flew rather slowly and kept only a few feet apart. It was evident that the spacing was intentional and that the pursuer made no attempt to catch up with the other. The flight covered a territory of several acres. It was a graceful and interesting performance.
"I supposed at the time that this sexual flight indicated that the affair was completed, but later that afternoon I several times saw a male and two females together, the females posturing and wick-up-ing, the male motionless. The females showed no enmity toward each other and did not face each other, as the males of two days before did. They kept rather farther apart. At one time a second male appeared and stayed about for a time, but he disappeared, apparently without becoming a serious factor in the situation.
"Three days later a pair of flickers, male and female, were feeding peacefully together on the lawn in the morning and in the afternoon, and I judged that the marital arrangements of at least two of my flickers had been completed."
More active courtship on the part of a female flicker is thus described in some notes from Lewis O. Shelley: "On April 24, coincident with a male flicker's message from an elm stub, a female and a second male appeared. All three were later in the cherry tree by our garden, perched on branches some three feet apart. The female took the initiative in the following activities and, perched crosswise of the branch, often bobbed and ducked up and down, then crosswise of the branch jerked to left, right, left, right, head cocked erect and with tail fully spread. At times the males, less actively, did likewise, but for the most part perched noncommittally, silent and still, giving but few calls. At one time, after the female had displayed intermittently several times, and when the males had been still for some five minutes, she sidled up to the nearest male and again displayed with much wing-fluttering and tail-spreading and sidewise twitchings; then the same to the other male who flew when her actions of bobbing and bowing face to face commenced. Not to be outdone, or so affronted, she flew after him, then the second male followed."
C. W. Leister (1919) noticed an aerial courtship evolution of the flicker, of which he says: "When first noticed, he was about fifty feet from the ground and ascending in peculiar, bumpy, and jerky spirals. This was maintained until a height of about 350 - 400 feet was reached, when, after a short pause, a reverse of practically the same performance was gone through. The Flicker, for such as he was identified by this time, then alighted in a cherry tree, just above a female that we had previously failed to notice, and completed the performance by going through his more familiar courting antics."
A recrudescence of the amatory instinct is sometimes seen in fall. On September 22, 1933, a clear, warm morning, a pair of flickers, male and female, were watched for some time as they performed their courtship dance on the top of one of my chimneys, where there might have been some warmth remaining from a fire that had since died out. They danced around on all four sides of the chimney, always facing each other, both of them bowing and swaying the head and neck, or whole body, from side to side, with the neck extended and the bill pointing almost straight upward. Sometimes they stopped for a few seconds, holding the upright posture, or one performed while the other posed. There was no wing or tail display that I could see. Lewis O. Shelley tells me that he has seen flickers in courtship display while the young were just leaving the nest.
Nesting.--Soon after mating is accomplished the choice for a nesting site is made, and often the selection is made during courtship, especially if a nesting cavity of the previous year is to be used. Probably the female usually makes the final decision, though there is some evidence to indicate that in many cases the male selects the site and persuades his mate to accept it.
Miss Althea R. Sherman (1910) made some very thorough studies of the nesting habits of the northern flicker at National, Iowa, in some boxes so arranged on her barn that she could observe the home life of the birds at close range. The male and the female had been occupying two different boxes as roosting places, and the eggs were laid in the box occupied by the male, from which it became evident "that the male bird chose the nesting place, and persuaded his mate to lay her eggs there, even when she was inclined to nest elsewhere, and when she had a box quite as good as his."
Often the male "stakes out his claim," so to speak, in the vicinity of an old nest, where, during the courtship period, he utters his loud mating call for several days, or even weeks, before the female answers the invitation. Then, after mating is accomplished, his chosen mate may or may not accept his choice of a nesting site. The desirability of the nesting site may in such cases influence the female's choice of a mate, for she is as much interested in having a comfortable and safe home as in choosing a handsome husband.
Having chosen the site, the pair set about repairing the old cavity or excavating a new one, at which both birds work diligently for anywhere from a week to three weeks, depending on the conditions they find. Mr. Shelley tells me that, in his experience with several nests, the nesting cavity is completed from a week to a fortnight before the eggs are laid. The chips are usually, but not always, carried away to some distance from the nest tree, but often chips are merely scattered about the base of the tree. William Brewster (1936) gives the following account of rather peculiar behavior of a flicker while excavating its nest:
Found a Flicker at work excavating a hole in an apple tree in Bensen's orchard. I was passing the tree within six feet when I heard a low tapping, accompanied by a continuous muffled whining sound. Turning, I at once saw the bird's tail projecting from the hole, which was not over five feet above the ground. For a minute or more the pecking and whining continued uninterruptedly, the tail wriggling violently the while. Evidently the bird had carved in the hole to just that point where she had less room to work than she had had before or would have afterwards. In other words, she had just about reached the point where the entrance hole must begin to be expanded into a chamber and to turn downward. It seemed to me that the whining sound expressed rage or impatience. Perhaps it was the Flicker's form of swearing!
The northern flicker seems to show no very decided preference for any one species of tree in its choice of a nesting site, though I believe it does prefer a dead tree, or a dead stub on a living tree, or a tree that has a soft or partially decayed heart. It has always seemed to me that in New England we find more nests in large apple trees in old orchards than elsewhere, the nest being excavated in the main trunk, or large upright branch, at no great height from the ground. Such trees may have a hard outer shell, but the interior is often more or less soft. Old orchards are becoming scarce in my vicinity, which forces the flickers to look elsewhere. Next in importance here as a common nesting site is the trunk or stub of a dead white pine tree. Mr. Burns (1900) mentions one dead pine "perforated with 25 or 30 holes, most of which were in use at one time or another." He lists, as favorite trees in the middle and eastern states, "apple, sycamore, oak, butternut, cherry, elm, chestnut, maple, poplar, beech, ash, pine, hickory, etc." In Pennsylvania, he says that J. Warren Jacobs has "found the sycamore to be the favorite, with the apple and maple second, the beech and locust third, oak and cherry fourth, and all other varieties fifth."
Mr. Burns continues: "From Ohio westward the apple orchard is a favorite with the poplar, willow, maple, oak, elm, walnut, cottonwood, etc., more or less resorted to, according to availability. It very seldom nests in a living coniferous tree, though it has been known to nest in a living red cedar and in dead hemlocks and spruces."
Telegraph, telephone, and other tall poles, as well as fenceposts, are favorite nesting sites in the prairie regions and other parts of the West, where trees are scarce. Frank L. Farley writes to me that in the timbered country of northern Alberta, "where there are many suitable nesting trees and stubs, the telephone and telegraph poles are frequently used for nesting. These poles are usually cedar and it is assumed that the birds prefer these for nesting because of the ease with which they can excavate."
Flickers quite often nest in boxes erected for that purpose and in buildings, much to the annoyance of the owners. I have frequently seen nests in icehouses; these have double walls, the intervening space being filled with sawdust; the birds drill through the outer walls and make their nests in the sawdust. The cornices and walls of many buildings on the farms, as well as the towers of churches and schoolhouses, are perforated, and the eggs laid on the beams or boarding within. Mr. Burns (1900) records the following interesting case:
Mr. Burke H. Sinclair found a nest containing eggs in the garret of the town high school. The birds obtained entrance to this large three-story brick building by means of a displaced brick. As in all infloored lofts it consists of nothing but the parallel rafters, with attached lath and plaster, which forms the ceiling of the room below. This frail floor is about ten inches below the entrance hole, and the nest was situated about one foot from and directly in front of the entrance. The place had evidently been used for several years, there being at least a peck of wood chippings, some fresh, but a large quantity old and discolored with age. The nest was placed between two of the paralleled rafters and composed of these chippings, being about six inches thick by eighteen inches in diameter. This material had been all cut from the rafters on the floor and the roof overhead.
A number of other unusual nesting sites have been recorded. F. A. E. Starr tells me of a nest that "was in an old stump two feet high; the six eggs were on a bed of rotten wood at ground level." Dr. Jonathan Dwight, Jr. (1893) reports a nest that he found on Prince Edward Island; the "nest with fully fledged young was examined in the top of a hollow fence post. No excavation had been made by the bird, and the young were entirely exposed to the weather." Flickers occasionally nest in natural cavities in trees, where no excavation is needed beyond enlarging the opening, if necessary, or cleaning out the interior. Ned Hollister (1918) reports that a pair of flickers and a pair of house wrens nested in holes in an old stump in a lion's cage in the National Zoological Park in Washington. Mr. Burns (1900) writes: "It has been found breeding far out on the prairie in an old wagon hub, surrounded by weeds; also in barrels, and one instance of an excavation of the regulation size in a haystack is on record; another nested in a crevice of an unused chimney for several years; and stranger yet it has been found more than once occupying Kingfisher's and enlarged Bank Swallow's burrows."
The haystack nest is reported by Major Bendire (1895), on the authority of William A. Bryant, of New Sharon, Iowa, as follows:
On a small hill, a quarter of a mile distant from my home, stood a haystack which had been placed there two years previously. The owner, during the winter of 1889-90, had cut the stack through the middle and hauled away one portion, leaving the other standing with the end smoothly trimmed. The following spring I noticed a pair of yellow-shafted flickers about the stack showing signs of wanting to make it a fixed habitation. One morning a few days later I was amused at the efforts of one of the pair. It was clinging to the perpendicular end of the stack and throwing out chipped hay at a rate to defy competition. This work continued for nearly a week, and in that time the pair had excavated a cavity 20 inches in depth. The entrance was located 8 1/2 feet above ground, and was 2 1/2 inches in diameter and dug back into the stack for 6 inches, where it turned sharply downward and was slightly enlarged at the bottom. On May 28 I took a handsome set of seven eggs from the nest, the eggs lying on a bed of chipped hay. The birds lingered about the stack and by June 14 had deposited another set of eggs. . . . I never could quite understand the philosophy of their peculiar choice of this site, as woodland is abundant here. A well-timbered creek bottom was less than half a mile distant, while large orchards and groves surround the place on every hand.
Kumlien and Hollister (1903) and J. A. Farley (1901) record instances of flickers nesting on hay; in each case the birds bored a hole through the walls of a barn and laid their eggs in a hollow in a pile of hay near the entrance hole. William Brewster (1909) published an account of a flicker's nest on the open ground, found by some ladies on Cape Cod and seen by him. Beside a sandy road, "fully a quarter of a mile from the nearest house and bordered on both sides by dense woods of pitch pines, the ladies found five eggs of the Flicker lying together on a hollow in the ground within a few feet of the deeply rutted wagon track." The nest "was a circular, saucer-shaped depression, measuring 21 1/4 inches across the top, by 3 inches in depth. Dry yellowish sand mixed with fine gravel and wholly free from vegetation of any kind, living or dead, formed its bottom and the gently sloping sides, as well as the surface of the level ground about it for two or three yards in every direction, but a little further back there were weeds and grasses growing sparingly, in a slightly richer soil." Photographs of the two nests similarly located may be seen in Bird-Lore, volume 18, page 399, and volume 36, page 105.
Mr. Burns's data show that the height of the nest from the ground varies in middle and eastern states from 2 to 60 feet, and in central western states from ground level to 90 feet. His accumulated data on the measurements of nesting cavities show that the depth of the excavation is "greatest in New York and New England (10 to 36 inches), Illinois (14 to 24 inches), Pennsylvania (10 to 18 inches), and Minnesota (9 to 18 inches)." Probably the depth of the cavity depends on the quality of the wood and the age of the nest; when an old cavity is used, it is usually deepened somewhat. Dr. H. C. Oberholser (1896) gives the measurements of four Ohio nests; the total depth varied from 7 to 18 inches; the diameter of the entrance varied from 2.00 by 2.00 to 4.00 by 4.00 and averaged 2.94 by 2.72 inches. Mr. Burns (1900) says the diameter of the cavity near the bottom varies from 4.50 to 10.00, and averages 7.67 inches. No nesting material is taken in from outside, but enough fine chips are left in the bottom of the hole to make a soft bed, in which the eggs are partially buried. Carl W. Buchheister tells me that he once found a nest "the bottom of which was 6 inches below the ground level and 12 inches below the opening, a round hole which was 6 inches above the ground. There was but one egg."
Eggs.--The flicker is notorious as a prolific egg layer, but under ordinary circumstances, when not disturbed, the average set consists of six to eight eggs. Incubated sets of as few as three or four have been found, sets of nine and ten are not very rare, and as many as 17 have been found in a nest at one time; the large numbers may be products of two females. Mr. Burns (1900) records the contents of 169 sets of the northern flicker as 11 sets of four, 16 sets of five, 35 sets of six, 34 sets of seven, 38 sets of eight, 17 sets of nine, 13 sets of ten, 3 sets of twelve, and one each of thirteen and fourteen. Major Bendire (1895) states that Steward Ogilby, of Staten Island, N.Y., reports "finding a brood of not less than nineteen young Flickers in one nest, all alive and apparently in good condition."
If robbed of its eggs, the flicker will continue to lay new sets for a long time. Dr. Barton W. Evermann (1889) "obtained thirty-seven eggs in forty-nine days from a 'yellowhammer' which had its nest near my house. The eggs were in seven sets, five, five, five, six, seven, four, and five eggs respectively." J. Parker Norris (1888) took five sets of six eggs each from a nest in Pennsylvania between May 16 and June 18. Several other similar cases of persistent laying have been reported, all of which indicate that an egg is laid each day and that the birds begin at once to replace the lost set. Mr. Burns (1900) lists a number of such cases, where no nest egg was left to induce the bird to keep on laying; the largest number reported was 48 eggs in 65 days. My neighbor, Charles L. Phillips, tried the experiment of taking one egg each day, leaving one as a nest egg; he holds the extraordinary record of having taken 71 eggs from one nest in 73 days; the poor bird rested only two days in the long strain of over two months.
Eggs of the flicker have sometimes been found in the nests of other birds. In an old orchard, not far from my home, I once found a flicker's egg in a bluebird's nest, with five eggs of the latter; and in another cavity in the same tree was a tree swallow's nest containing five eggs of the swallow and an egg of the flicker. As this was in a remote locality, it is hardly likely that the eggs were placed there artificially, and the chances are that the flicker's nest had been destroyed and she was forced to lay in the nearest available cavity. Mr. Burns (1900) says: "A similar instance is recorded by E. G. Elliot, Bradford, Mass., May 16th, '84, of a set of five eggs of bluebird and one of flicker, nest of grass and feathers. Records of European house sparrow and red-headed woodpecker eggs in freshly excavated quarters with one or more eggs of the Flicker are not uncommon, and upon investigation the latter proved to be the aggrieved party in every instance." He also tells of a flicker that laid an egg in a mourning dove's nest.
The eggs of the flicker are pure lustrous white, with a brilliant gloss; the shell is translucent, and, when fresh, the yolk shows through it, suffusing the egg with a delicate pinkish glow, which is very beautiful.
The shape is quite variable, but the majority are ovate; some are short-ovate or elliptical-ovate, some nearly oval, and some rarely somewhat pointed. The measurements of 57 eggs average 26.85 by 20.58 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 30.48 by 22.86, 28.19 by 24.38, 24.45 by 21.34, and 27.68 by 19.05 millimeters.
Young.--The period of incubation of the flicker has been said to be from 14 to 16 days. Miss Sherman's (1910) careful observations on marked eggs, laid on known dates, indicate a shorter period. From some former nests she had learned "that sometimes the eggs hatched in nine days, but more frequently in ten days after the laying of the last egg." In these cases, incubation may have begun before the set was complete, or the eggs may have received some heat from the body of the male, for she said that, in at least one case, "while the eggs were being laid, and before incubation began the male roosted in the box with the eggs." According to a later observation, "the exact time for incubation had been twelve days, three hours and fifty-two minutes. The seventh egg hatched four hours later making its period of incubation eleven days and eight hours nearly." After another similar experience with the hatching of nine marked eggs, which extended over a period from 5:40 a.m. one day until 10:48 a.m. the next day, she says: "Roughly speaking, then, the time that our Flickers take for incubation is from eleven to twelve days."
Her observations showed that the duties of incubation are shared by both sexes, that the male usually incubates during the night, but "by day the duties of incubation seem to be shared about equally between the two birds, who are close sitters, the eggs seldom being found alone. Of the length of the sittings no adequate record has been kept, but those lasting from one hour and a half to two hours have been noted."
Miss Sherman (1910) noted that "the usual time for depositing the eggs in the nest appears to be the hour between five and six o'clock in the morning," though in one case an egg was laid between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Some of her observations on the young follow:
Until the young are about eleven days old, they lie in a circle in the nest, their long necks stretched over each other, then for nearly a week they press against the side of the nest. At seventeen or eighteen days of age, their claws having acquired a needlelike sharpness, they begin to cling to the wall of the nest, and when three weeks old they are able to climb to the hole and be fed while the parent hangs outside.
Although the eyes of the nestlings are not open until they are ten days old, yet these organs are by no means dormant. An easy proof of this is made by placing the hand noiselessly over the entrance hole when they are no more than three or four days old, and are lying apparently asleep; up comes every head and they beg for food, getting none they soon sleep, when the experiment may be repeated, gaining from the young the same response that is given when a parent darkens the hole.
That cry of the young which is so often described as a hissing sound, begins very soon after they are hatched. At first exceedingly faint it soon grows stronger, and is uttered day and night for two weeks. A parent upon taking its place to brood these wailing nestlings begins to croon a lullaby and continues this musical murmur until it falls asleep, which is often quite soon. It has no effect in lessening the noise of the youngsters, yet the parent faithfully renders its cradle song until the young cease to make this noise which is about the time they begin to show fear. Of other cries that they make, there is the chuckling noise uttered when the little one is in the act of seizing the food-bearing bill, and there is a cry that sounds like a whine. Still another one is a note of alarm given when the young are disturbed by some such thing as the opening of the trap door. This uttered in unison has a very theatrical effect strongly suggesting the chorus of the stage. After they have commenced to move about freely in the nest they make much of the time a pleasant sound like a chatter or quack, as if talking to each other. And lastly comes the grown-up Flicker "pe-ap," which they begin to call as soon as they climb to the hole. . . .
Some broods are much more quarrelsome than others. Their battle ground is in the vicinity of the hole. The one in possession of the hole maintains his supremacy there by occasional withdrawals of his head from the hole in order to deliver vigorous blows on the heads of all within his reach. This is the case with the stronger ones, the weaker ones frequently are driven from the vantage place. When the hole is large enough for two to thrust out their heads together, they draw within after the the serving of a meal and fight furiously, while a waiting third may slip up and gain the coveted hole. But all their fighting days seem to be confined to a few in the fourth week of their lives. . . . In very early life a meal is served to baby Flicker with many insertions of the parent's bill, as many as thirty-four have been counted, but from eight to twenty are the ordinary number, decreasing to three or four before the young leave the nest. A record made during a continuous watch of six hours and thirty-two minutes shows that each parent fed five times; that the father delivered his supply with eighty-two insertions of the bill, while the mother used but forty-one. Probably the father brought more food since on every count he proved himself the more devoted parent. In grasping the bill the point of the youngster's bill is at right angles with that of the parent's, thus the opening between the food-bearing mandibles is covered after the young have attained a few days of age, and any over-dropping of food is prevented. This accident frequently happens in the early days of the nest, then the mussed up ants that fall are carefully picked up by the frugal parent when the feeding is over. . . .
Experiments show that to a nestling weighing 743 grains was given a breakfast that weighted 76 grains, to one weighing 1,430 grains a dinner of 118 grains, and to another that tipped the scales at 1530 grains a supper of 103 grains. Probably the weight of the average load is not far from one hundred grains. . . .
When the young were eighteen days old during a watch of four and one-half hours twenty-five meals were given to five nestlings that wore distinguished marks. Three of these are positively known to have received five meals apiece, and two received four apiece. . . . At this age the young Flickers every hour partake of food to the amount of one-sixteenth of their own weight, or in one day consume their full weight of food.
She says that flickers are very solicitous to keep a clean nest; for the first nine or ten days the parents eat the excrements, but after that the dejecta are carried out in the tough white sacks in which they are enclosed. If no sacks of excrement are found in the nest after feeding, the parent solicits them; "this is done by biting the heel joints sometimes, but more often the fleshy protuberance that bears that budding promise of the tail."
She says that the male "staid with the young every night until they were three weeks old, brooding all of them until nearly two weeks of age, when they began pressing their breasts against the side of the nest, and he could cover the tails of two or three only, after which for two or three nights he sat upon the bottom of the nest apart from the young; then for four nights he hung upon the wall of the nest near the hole; thereafter he staid with them no more."
Her records show that the young remained in the nest nearly or quite four weeks, or from 25 to 28 days. During the last three or four days nearly all of them lost weight; this may have been due to the period of the heaviest feather growth, or because the parents may have let up on the feeding to induce the young to leave the nest. Miss Sherman's statements, as to the period of incubation and the length of time that the young remain in the nest, are quite at variance with statements made by others, but her observations were so carefully and thoroughly made under such favorable circumstances that they are more convincing than less accurate observations of others.
Some others have also described the method of feeding the young by regurgitation in a manner that differs from that observed by Miss Sherman. Mr. Brewster (1936), for example, says:
Standing on the edge of the hole, the parent would select one--usually the nearest, I thought--and bending down would drive his bill to its base into the gaping mouth which instantly closed tightly around it, when the head and bill of the parent was worked up and down with great rapidity for from one to one and one-half seconds (timed with a stop watch), the young meanwhile holding on desperately and apparently never once losing its grasp, although its poor little head was jerked up and down violently. The first, or entering downward thrust of the parent's bill looked like a vicious stab, the bird apparently striking with all its force as if with the design of piercing his offspring to the vitals. The subsequent up and down motion was invariably rapid and regular and resembled the bill movement of a woodpecker while "drumming." It also suggested the stroke of a piston.
In this case the top of the stump had been broken off, leaving the nest open and exposed, so that every motion could be clearly seen from a distance of not over 15 feet. After the young had left the nest, he discovered that "the nest was left in a terribly foul state, the bottom being a disgusting mass of muddy excrement alive with wriggling worms. . . . These young, however, managed to keep very clean and all, so far as I could discover, were perfectly free from vermin." Apparently the old birds find it difficult to clean the nest after the young reach a certain size.
W. I. Lyon (1922) tells an interesting story of a screech owl that adopted and brooded a family of young flickers, after its own nest in the same tree had been broken up twice; the owl even brought in part of a small bird, perhaps intending to feed it to the young flickers, which were all the time being fed by their parents and were successfully raised.
Plumages.--Miss Sherman (1910) gives a very good description of the naked and blind nestling, as follows: "The pellucid color of the newly hatched Flicker resembles that of freshly sun-burned human skin, but so translucent is the nestling's skin that immediately after feeding one can see the line of ants that stretches down the bird's throat and remains in view two or three minutes before passing onward. This may be witnessed for several days while the skin assumes a coarser red, until it begins to thicken and become a bluish hue, before the appearance of the pin-feathers. These may be detected under the skin on the fifth day at the same time that bristle-like projections about one-sixteenth of an inch long announce the coming of the rectrices and remiges."
Mr. Burns (1900) says: "It is not known when the white membranous process which extends from either side of the base of the lower mandible disappears, but it probably goes at a very early age. This formation is apparently peculiar to all young woodpeckers, as suggested by Frank A. Bates, in the Ornithologist and Oologist, Vol. XVI, p.35, but its use is unknown." A photograph, published by E. H. Forbush (1927), shows that this does not wholly disappear until the young bird is nearly fledged; its function is probably to help guide the regurgitated food from the mouth of the adult into the throat of the young bird during the feeding method noted by Miss Sherman (1910).
The young flicker is fully fledged in its juvenal plumage when it leaves the nest; and, contrary to the rule among birds, this plumage more nearly resembles the plumage of the adult male than that of the old female, as the young of both sexes have the black malar patches. The black bands on the upper parts are much broader, the vinaceous portions of the head and neck are more tinged with gray, the malar patches are duller black, and the lower parts are paler with duller and larger black spots than in the adult. The crown is usually more or less suffused with dull red, especially in young males, and sometimes the red nuchal crescent is somewhat wider or more extensive; the crescent on the breast is usually smaller; the yellow on the under sides of the wings and tail is duller and more greenish; the black tips in the tail are duller and not so sharply defined against the yellow; and the upper tail coverts are black with white spots, instead of being white and boldly barred with black, as in the adult. The plumage is soft and loose in texture and the bill is small and weak.
This plumage is worn but a short time, as a complete molt begins in July and is usually finished in September or October, producing a first winter plumage that is practically adult. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt at about the same time of year. A detailed account of the progress of the molt of young birds is given by William Palmer (1901) and one of the adults by Burns (1900); both accounts are too long to be quoted here. Fall adults in fresh plumage are very handsome birds, more deeply and richly colored than spring birds; the upper parts are deeper brown and the lower parts are suffused with yellowish buff; wear and fading produce a more contrasted plumage in the spring in which the dark markings are less obscured and the soft suffusion has disappeared. ***
Food.--The flicker is more terrestrial in its feeding habits than any of our other woodpeckers. It is a common sight to see one of them hopping about on a lawn, or in an open place in the woods and fields, probing in the ground for ants or picking up ground insects or fallen berries. It is one of our most useful birds, worthy of the fullest protection. Professor Beal (1911) has shown that 60.92 percent of its food consists of animal matter and 39.08 percent of vegetable matter. About 75 percent of the animal food, or 45 percent of the entire food, consists of ants. The flicker eats more ants than any other bird; ants were found in 524 of the 684 stomachs examined, and 98 stomachs contained no other food; one stomach contained over 5,000 ants, and two others held over 3,000 each. If it had no other beneficial habit, the flicker would deserve protection for the good it does in keeping in check these injurious and annoying insects. Ants protect plant lice of various species, which may become very injurious to many kinds of cultivated plants, inflicting serious losses for the agricultural interests; the plant lice, or aphids, secrete a sweet honey-dew juice, of which the ants are very fond; consequently these tiny insects are herded by the ants and milked like cows. The ants take good care of their honey-producing "cattle," driving them away from ladybugs and other enemies, leading them to new pastures, if the old ones dry up, sheltering the aphid eggs in their nests, and carrying the young aphids out onto the plants to feed. Mr. Forbush (1927) also says: "Ants riddle posts set in the ground or any timber or lumber resting upon or in contact with the ground. They destroy the sills of buildings set close to the ground and often ruin living trees, especially such as have a few dead roots. They infest lawns and buildings, destroying grass on the lawns and food in the house, and are difficult to eradicate. They sometimes eat alive the young of certain ground-nesting birds. They are very prolific and require a severe check on their numbers. Otherwise they would become unbearable pests."
The flicker explores the ground, often scratching away leaves or rubbish, to locate the ant nests, digs into the nest with its long bill, and, as the ants come pouring out, it laps them up in quantities or inserts its long, sticky tongue deep down into the nest to get the young and eggs. Early in spring it digs into the large mounds of the mound-building ants, while the ants are less active, or tears open some rotten stump to uncover a nest. Only a few days ago, I dug into an old apple-tree stump for some rotten wood to put on some of my wildflowers and uncovered a large nest of ants; within a very few minutes my pair of flickers were on the job cleaning up the ants and their pupae.
Other insect food of the flicker includes a variety of beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, crickets, mole crickets, chinch bugs, wood lice, caterpillars, grubs, and various flying insects, which it sometimes catches on the wing, darting after them like a flycatcher (Burns, 1900).
According to Beal (1911), 39.08 percent of its food is vegetable matter. Most of this consists of wild fruits and berries, such as the berries of the dogwood (Cornus) and Virginia creeper, hackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, pokeberries, serviceberries (Amelanchier), elderberries, barberries, mulberries, blackberries, wild grapes, wild black cherries, choke cherries, cultivated cherries, and the berries of the black alder, sour gum, black gum, greenbrier (Smilax), spicebush (Benzoin), red cedar, hawthorn, mountain ash, and woodbine. Harold H. Bailey (1913) says that while the fall migration is at its height in Virginia, about October first, "they are particularly fond of the blue berry of the black-gum tree, and after once finding a tree with fruit, will continue to come to it until every berry is gone, even though continually shot at. I remember a case a few years back, when a local gunner killed fifty-seven flickers from one black-gum tree in one forenoon. After the gumberries are gone, they take to the dogwood berry for their main article of food, a fine red berry and always plentiful in Tidewater."
The flicker feeds freely on the seeds of the poison ivy and poison sumac and perhaps does some harm in distributing the seeds of these noxious plants. Professor Beal (1895) also includes the seeds of other sumacs, clover, grasses, pigweed, mullein, ragweed, and other unidentified seeds, and the seeds of the magnolia and knotweed. Mr. Burns (1900) adds wild strawberries, dewberries, raspberries, and wild plums, also acorns, beechnuts, corn from shocks, and oats, wheat, and rye from stacks.
The birds that Miss Sherman (1910) watched in their nesting box ate considerable sawdust. "That at one time the male ate three tablespoonfuls is deemed a modest estimate. An attempt to measure the amount both ate by a fresh supply daily showed the consumption of three or more handfuls. The sawdust came from sugar maple, white and red oak wood." She seemed to think that flickers have "little use for water," having seen them drink only twice, during many hours of watching from a blind, "all of which taken together would amount to weeks." Owen Durfee speaks in his notes of having seen three flickers drinking, or eating, snow on a cold day in winter; he saw one drop down onto a patch of snow on a stone wall and begin eating the snow. "His motions were just like a chicken drinking water--the partly closed bill was dipped into the snow and then held up in the air and the mandibles worked as though chewing or dissolving it, when another dip would be made. Soon two other flickers flew down in the same manner and secured some snow water. On approaching, I found the footprints and several little round holes somewhat smaller than a pencil."
I have often seen them drinking water and so have other observers; perhaps they drink copiously but not often.
Francis H. Allen says in his notes: "I have seen one feeding in the manner of a chickadee among the twigs of a tree, perching crosswise of the twig and flitting about actively, gleaning some minute food. Mr. Brewster told me that he had seen a flicker feeding this way."
Joseph J. Hickey tells me that he has seen a flicker feeding after the manner of an Arctic three-toed woodpecker, deliberately scaling off the bark in search of food; this bird had denuded about half the bark of a hemlock.
Behavior.--In ordinary short flights, the flicker proclaims its relationship to the other woodpeckers by its rhythmic bounding flight, the wings beating more rapidly on the rises and much less so on the dips, which are usually followed by a short sail on motionless wings. Mr. Burns (1900) noted that the dips occur about every 15 or 20 feet and that the bird drops about 3 feet on each dip. On more prolonged flights the flight is steadier, more direct, strong, and fairly swift. It does not ordinarily fly at any great height, except when migrating. When alighting on a tree trunk, there is a graceful upward glide, the trunk is grasped with the feet, and the tail is used as a prop in true woodpecker fashion; but the flicker is more apt to alight on a horizontal branch than other woodpeckers, when there is less upward glide and an upright posture is assumed, as balance is acquired.
On the ground, the flicker proceeds slowly by short hops, but sometimes it runs rapidly for a few steps and then stops; it seems content to confine its foraging to a rather limited area and does not appear very active.
Spring drumming on a resonant limb, or inside a nesting cavity, is an essential part of the call to courtship or mating, and perhaps a signal call for other purposes; but it is used at other times, perhaps for sheer amusement. This habit sometimes becomes a nuisance, since the bird has discovered that the tin roof of a house serves as the best kind of a drum; here he comes morning after morning while we are enjoying our slumbers, from which we are rudely awakened at an unseemly hour. Mr. DuBois writes to me that, on an afternoon in June, "a flicker was drumming on the lid of a large galvanized iron ash or garbage can at the corner of the back porch of a residence; he stood on top of the lid and, at intervals, after looking around he beat an extremely rapid roll on his metallic drum; the effect was startling."
As to the roosting habits of flickers, Miss Sherman (1910) writes: "Of all our birds the flickers are the earliest to retire at night, sometimes going to their lodgings an hour before sundown, the customary time being about a half hour before sunset. Generally they go out soon after sunrise, but on cool autumn mornings they have been known to linger much longer. During a rainstorm in the middle of the day they have been seen to seek their apartments, also in fine weather they have been found there enjoying the seclusion thus afforded."
Frank R. Smith, of Hyattsville, Md., sends me the following note, dated February 18, 1936: "For some nights, a flicker has been roosting in a shell of a dead tree, from which one side has decayed away, leaving a troughlike section of its trunk standing. He roosts about 12 feet from the ground. This morning it was cloudy and he left the roosting place at 7:25, although official sunrise is at 6:37." Mr. Shelley tells me that he flushed a male from a nest tree, "where he clung each night about 3 feet above the nest hole, with the female brooding the young within." Flickers will roost in any open cavity in a tree, or even in a partially sheltered spot on the open trunk; they often drill holes in barns or under the eaves of houses for winter roosts; a favorite winter roosting place is in the sawdust between the double walls of icehouses. Sometimes they dig a hole into a vacant building and fail to find their way out; I once found one dead inside the garage at my summer cottage, which had been closed all winter. Mr. Forbush (1927) says that "during one winter at Wareham one apparently slept on the wall of my summer cottage under the eaves, clinging to one of the ornamental battens in an upright position as it would to a tree trunk. This bird for some unaccountable reason chose the north side of the cottage. He was there night after night at dusk and also at daylight each morning. Mr. R. F. Carr tells of a flicker that was accustomed to pass winter nights in a chimney of an unoccupied dwelling in a thickly settled neighborhood which undoubtedly was a more comfortable roosting place than the north side of my cottage."
Dr. Lynds Jones told Mr. Burns (1900) that "at Oberlin College a single bird roosted between the vertical water pipe and wall of Spear Library for two successive winters, and another occupied the cupola of the Theological Seminary the succeeding winter."
Flickers are generally regarded as peaceful harmless birds, but the following two quotations indicate that they are sometimes otherwise.
O. P. Allert (1934) writes from Giard, Iowa: "On June 4, 1933, while in the yard of my home, I was attracted by the cries of a pair of Robins and saw a female Flicker in the act of killing the two young that the Robins' nest contained. One was killed in the nest, and the other either fell or was thrown to the ground, where the Flicker followed and dispatched it."
Dr. Dayton Stoner (1932) writes: "While the flicker is not habitually belligerent, it does on occasion show some aggressiveness. This most frequently occurs during the breeding season. For example, on July 11, 1929, in the Parker woods south of Lakeport, I came upon several flickers and two or three crows that were tormenting a red-shouldered hawk. The flickers were pecking excitedly on the limbs of the tree on which the hawk perched, and clamoring loudly at it. When the hawk flew off the flickers darted after it, pecking it unmercifully until it lit again, when they were cautious about approaching close to the harassed hawk. This quarrel was continued for more than half an hour."
Voice.--The flicker has an elaborate vocabulary; no other woodpecker, and few other birds, can produce a greater variety of loud striking calls and soft conversational notes. A number of its many vernacular names are based on a fancied resemblance to some one of its notes, and in most cases these names give a very fair idea of the note. A few of such names are "flicker," "yucker," "wacup," "hittock," "yarrup," "clape," and "piute"; and there are other modifications of these in different combinations of letters.
The commonest and most characteristic note is the loud spring call, of which Eugene P. Bicknell (1885) says: "Its long rolling call may be taken as especially representative of song, and is a characteristic sound of the empty woodland of early spring. It is usually given from some high perch, and has a free, far-reaching quality, that gives it the effect of a signal thrown out over the barren country, as if to arouse sleeping nature. This call continues irregularly through the summer, but then loses much of its prominence amid the multitude of bird voices. It is not infrequent in September, but later than the middle of October I have not heard it."
This is a sharp, penetrating note, which can be heard at a long distance; the syllables wick, wick, wick, wick, or yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, are very rapidly uttered and repeated in long series. Dr. Elon H. Eaton (1914) says that "it may be heard for more than half a mile and has been variously syllabized, usually written as 'cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh'," which hardly represents my idea of the song.
A softer note, heard during active courtship and display, sounds like wake-up, wake-up, wake-up, or yarrup, yarrup, yarrup, given more deliberately in subdued tones and not so prolonged. This has been referred to as the scythe-sharpening, or rollicking, song and has also been written as yucker, yucker, yucker, or wicker, wicker, wicker, or hick-up, hick-up, hick-up, or flicker, flicker, flicker. Mr. Bicknell (1885) has recorded these notes from April 8 to September 5; there seems to be no seasonal regularity about them, as they are probably affectionate notes of greeting.Mr. Burns (1900) "heard an apparently rare variation, a metallic Ka-wick-wick-wick-wick-wick -wick-wick-wick-wick-wick-ka by the male while close to the nest."
He gives as conversational, or soliloquizing notes, "commonly a scanny, gurgling, almost involuntary chur-r-r-r as danger seems to threaten it when on the wing, or when flushed from the ground or just before alighting, which may be interpreted as a note of warning or announcement of arrival according to the circumstances. I have heard a low guttural who-del as it endeavored to balance itself on a slender branch immediately after arrival." A bird on a house roof, in December, "uttered an odd guttural call of huck-a-woo-ah or again only woo woo evidently for his own edification." Other soft conversational notes sound like ouit-ouit, or puir-puir, or a cooing yu-cah-yu-cah.
Dr. Eaton (1914) says: "When the flicker flies up from the ground and alights on a stub or fence post, he frequently bobs and bows to an imaginary audience and immediately thereafter jerks his head high upward giving voice to a sharp note like the syllable 'clape.'" This is a loud, explosive note and may indicate defiance or surprise.
A common note, oftenest heard during summer and fall, is a plaintive call suggesting one of the notes of the blue jay or the red-shouldered hawk. It is a loud and rather musical note, which has been variously interpreted as pee-ut, ye-a-up, pee-up, que-ah, kee-yer, etc., given singly or repeated two or three times, as a ringing call of considerable carrying power.
Field marks.--While hopping about on the lawn, the flicker may be recognized as a brown bird somewhat larger than a robin and with a rather long bill; if facing the observer, the black crescent on the nape does not show up much except at short range, nor does the black malar patch of the male. The most conspicuous field mark is the white rump, which shows plainly as the bird rises from the ground and flies away; this probably serves as a direction mark, or a warning to companions with which it is often associated. Then, of course, the flash of bright yellow in its wings and tail marks the bird in flight, chiefly when high in the air, but somewhat also in straightaway flight.
Enemies.--When I was a boy, 50 or 60 years ago, flickers, meadowlarks, and robins were considered legitimate game, and they were very good to eat. Bunches of these birds were often seen hanging in the game dealers' stalls. During our fall vacations on the coast, when the weather was unfavorable for coot shooting, my father and uncle used to resort to the uplands to shoot "partridge woodpeckers" and "brown backs" (robins) among the bayberry bushes and sumacs. And flickers were slaughtered in large numbers in the South. Man was then the flicker's worst enemy, but that is now all ancient history, as these birds are now protected. But a new enemy has been introduced, which is probably worse than the old one. The European starling has come to compete with the flicker in its search for a food supply. The starlings are now so abundant that they swoop down in flocks on the formerly plentiful supply of wild fruits and berries, stripping the trees and bushes clean of the fruits on which the flickers and robins depended for their summer and fall food. They also compete for nesting sites, fighting for or usurping every available cavity, even driving the flickers from the homes that they had made. Lester W. Smith writes to me: "For several years after the starling became common in Connecticut, other birds, especially the flicker, were seldom ejected, or not until all available nesting possibilities about buildings were used and filled up. Never have I seen the flickers actually fight to retain their hole or bird house. On the sanctuary they were exceptionally noisy whenever starlings attempted to take or had taken possession. On one occasion three starlings took part; one remained in the entrance hole of the box and took dry grass that a second brought to it; the third chased off either of the pair of flickers, as it flew near the nest box, which was about 8 feet from the ground on a sawed-off tree in a white-pine grove. On shooting one of the starlings, the other four birds flew away temporarily, and, on examination, I found a thin layer of grass over the flicker's eggs. In 15 minutes the starlings returned and a second was shot. I removed the grass, and, hiding nearby, I saw nothing more of the third starling; but the flickers returned soon, took possession of the box, and later raised the five young."
Sydney R. Taber (1921) tells an interesting story of a battle between a male flicker and a pair of starlings for the possession of the flickers' nest. The flicker had once pulled one of the starlings out of the hole, but, during his absence, both of the starlings entered the hole.
On this second occasion, despairing of being able to pull the two out at long range, so to speak, the Flicker also plunged into the hole. Then followed a battle royal, lasting for what seemed minutes. It was rather ghastly to imagine the blows that were being dealt at closest quarters; not a sound was emitted, but one could imagine what was going on within the hole by the feathers that flew from it. The first bird to emerge--that is, to be pushed out, by fractions of an inch--was one of the Starlings, which then flew away. The fight between the other two birds then continued out of sight until something appeared at the mouth of the hole. This proved to be the tail of the Flicker. When he had backed out of the hole into view once more, it appeared that he and the remaining Starling had clinched in a desperate grapple. With the latter gripping one of the wings of the Flicker, they fell, fluttering and fighting, a distance of nearly 40 feet; but just before touching the ground, they parted and flew in different directions. . . .
The above events occurred a fortnight ago. Since then the Starlings have been in full possession of the hole of contention.
Flickers figure largely in the food of duck hawks; their brightly colored feathers are often found about the aeries. Other hawks take their toll. O. A. Stevens sends me the following note on a sharp-shinned hawk attacking a flicker, perhaps only in sport: "The hawk settled in a partially dead, spreading pine tree, some 8 feet from the top. A flicker perched about 6 feet above him, apparently from curiosity. For some time they remained, the hawk sitting quietly, preening, occasionally casting a glance at the flicker. The latter teetered about on his perch, craning his neck at the hawk and even dropping down a foot or so. After at least 10 minutes, the hawk suddenly darted at the flicker and away they went, the flicker twisting and escaping. It seems odd that an apparently heavy flier like a flicker would escape so easily."
Mr. Burns (1903) adds the broad-winged hawk to the flicker's enemies; "a nest of lusty young hawks examined in July, '01, contained the primaries and rectrices of one or two young Flickers, probably just out of the nest. . . . To the above Mr. Benj. T. Gault adds the Blacksnake--one having been killed and cut open by a farmer's lad at a place he was stopping at in Reynolds County, Missouri, contained the body of one of these woodpeckers." I have positively recorded flickers in the food of the marsh hawk, Cooper's hawk, and red-shouldered hawk; probably they are killed by all the larger hawks and owls. Taverner and Swales (1907) say that the sharpshin flights at Point Pelee discommoded the flickers less than any other species of small birds. "Though at times they seemed uneasy and restless, they were perfectly able to take care of themselves and easily made their escape when attacked. . . . The usual course of procedure of the Flicker, when attacked by a hawk, was to wait until the last minute, when the hawk, in its swoop, was just about to seize its victim, and then dodge quickly to the other side of the limb. In every case observed the ruse worked perfectly, and we found only once the feather remains which proved that once in a while the hawk was a little too quick for the Flicker."
Mr. Burns (1900) says that the eggs and young are sometimes destroyed by squirrels, weasels, mice, crows, jays, and the red-headed woodpecker. Fred. H. Kennard records in his notes that a pair of flickers, nesting in one of his boxes, were robbed of their eggs by some red squirrels, who ate the eggs in the box, built their own nest in the box, and brought in their young from another nest.
Fall.--As soon as the young are strong on the wing and the molting season is over, the flickers, old and young, begin to gather into loose flocks or scattered parties, perhaps family parties, late in summer and early in fall. On cold, windy autumn days they may be found in close companionship in hollows and sheltered localities in woodland clearings, protected from the cold winds, and feeding in the bayberry patches and clumps of staghorn sumac. At such times, they lie close and can be easily approached.
In southern Canada and the northern states, the great bulk of the flickers start to migrate in September, continuing to pass southward during October. Mr. Burns (1900) says of the fall migration: "While the retrograde movements are conducted in larger numbers, being recruited by great numbers of birds of the year, it is scarcely as noticeable, lacking the noise and bustle of spring arrivals. Like the Robin, its whole nature seems to have undergone a change. It no longer solicits notice by song or display, but becomes shy and suspicious, and while gregarious to a great extent, in flight every one is capable of looking out for itself. The mature birds are the most wary, and by example prepare the young for the dangers of migration and winter residence in the South, where it is constantly menaced by hunters."
During migration, they fly rather high, well above the treetops, in widely detached flocks, often far apart, but keeping more or less in touch with each other and sometimes fairly close together; hundreds may be counted, as they pass in a steady stream for hours at a time. Taverner and Swales (1907) report heavy flights across Lake Erie from Point Pelee: "During September it has always been one of the most abundant birds of the Point. Keays reports a flight in 1901 when he noted four hundred September 21." Long Point, which extends well out from the north shore of Lake Erie, is another favorite crossing place; here, according to L. L. Snyder (1931), "the flight observed by Mr. James Savage on September 30, 1930, was very remarkable, individuals estimated to be from one to two hundred yards apart, forming a scattered and straggling flock, passed in an almost steady stream throughout the morning hours."
Mr. Burns (1903) writes:
In south New Jersey, in the region of the Upper Delaware Bay, which runs due south, sometime in October every year the migrating Flickers are found flying north just previous to and during a northwest storm. At this time the wind is generally high and the birds fly against it. This peculiarity of flight affects a large territory extending inland from the east shore of the bay some fifteen or twenty miles. While the birds prefer to breast the wind, it is also probable that they are reluctant to cross the lower part of the bay during such a storm which would tend to drive them seaward, rather preferring to return northward to the more narrow river where they could cross in comparative safety.
Winter.--Winter finds most of the flickers gone from the northern states and southern Canada. Most of the birds wintering in New England seek the milder climate of the seacoast, where they feed in the extensive bayberry patches and on the semidormant insect life in the rows of drift seaweed along the beaches. The few that remain inland during mild winters are usually to be found in sheltered hollows or along the sunny sides of the woods, feeding on the ground or on what berries and dry fruits still remain on the bushes, often in company with merry little winter parties of juncos, tree sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, and perhaps a downy or hairy woodpecker. Favorite resorts at that season are the southern slopes of the hills overgrown with thick stands of red cedars, mixed with staghorn sumacs, barberries, and other berry-bearing bushes. They probably seek shelter at night in the dense cedar swamps or in the holes excavated for that purpose in icehouses or other buildings, or in hollow trees.
L. H. Walkinshaw, of Battle Creek, Mich., writes to me that there, "in deep winter, flickers can be found in the deep tamarack swamps, coming to the edge during periods of the day. They often flush, even when snow is deep, from mounds on the ground or from dead or dying stubs along the border."
O. A. Stevens says in his notes: "At my farm home in Kansas, the flickers caused some annoyance by seeking entrance to the barn for winter nights. They enlarged other openings for this purpose and sometimes started openings which would not lead them inside. One bird at least, enlarged the opening about the hayfork track and roosted on the iron track just inside the door."
Dr. Paul L. Errington (1936) writes an interesting story on the winter-killing of flickers in central Iowa. By a careful study of the droppings of the three birds that he studied, it appeared that they were much weakened by improper food, too large a proportion of indigestible seeds, mainly those of the sumac, and not enough animal food, which ordinarily amounts to more than half of the average food supply.
M. P. Skinner (1928), writing of the Sandhills of North
Carolina, says: "Flickers stay in the Sandhills all winter,
but the infrequent snowstorms cause them lots of trouble in
finding food. On January 10, 1927, I found quite a little coterie
of birds had scratched the leaves under a dogwood tree until they
had a space twelve feet in diameter more or less cleared of snow.
Here, among other species of birds, were two Flickers foraging
among the leaves for fallen dogwood berries. These berries were
probably eaten until weather conditions became better for insect
catching. Even during winter, ants are fairly plentiful for the
Sandhill Flickers, especially on warm days."
Northern Flicker* Colaptes auratus
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1939. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 174: 264-287. United States Government Printing Office