“Any weird birds show up today?” I asked my wife as I dropped the kokanee in the sink after being successful at Ririe Reservoir.
“Nope – just the 10 flickers fighting over their food in the backyard,” she replied.
Early last fall, when there were a lot of Blue jays being sighted in the area, I decided to offer a lot of different foods – create a “bird restaurant” – to attempt to attract different birds into our yard. I did have a Blue jay show up for a couple of days, but we ended up with up to 12 Northern flickers making our backyard their winter home. It has been a very colorful experience.
In past years, we have had a few flickers show up occasionally, usually during inclement weather, but not in daily numbers. I believe that the food variety that I have supplied this fall and winter has paid large dividends for the appearance of the flickers that create a lot of entertainment for us.
The new foods that I supplied this winter have been a mixture of “fruit and nuts,” different flavors of suet cakes (apple, peanut butter, orange, and woodpecker flavors) and a large cake of seeds and dried mealworms. All of these new foods are loved by the flickers and with the seven new feeding stations and as many as 12 flickers in the backyard, there are always a few squabbles among the residents. Not near as bad as the human political squabbles but more interesting to watch.
I like to keep the feeders small as it creates a lot of interesting gymnastic positions for the large flickers to get access to the food. They will tolerate the small House finches, House sparrows, nuthatches, goldfinches and Brown creepers to feed with them – but not another flicker – no matter the gender.
There are basically two forms of Northern flickers, the Red-shafted and the yellow-shafted, with the Red-shafted being the most common in our area. I have never seen a pure Yellow-shafted flicker in Idaho, but the two forms may interbreed and we occasionally will have a cross between the two show up. I have not seen any of the crossed forms in my backyard this year, but with about 100 of them wintering at Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area I have seen two there.
Their form names come from the coloring of the shafts of the wing and tail feathers with the Yellow-shafted dominant in the east part of the nation and the Red-shafted in the west.
In the summer, a flicker’s food is dominated by consuming ants – thousands of them. One autopsy of a dead flicker revealed over 5,000 of the little critters in its stomach. Since ants are not available during Idaho winters, these birds mostly live on nuts and fruit. Dried berries embedded in suet along with peanut products bring these birds into back yards and hawthorn berries create some natural food for them. Frozen and rotted apples and crabapples are also utilized by these birds.
The flicker’s tongue is equipped for the gathering of ants. It is a very long one to reach into ant holes, is barbed on the end and has a sticky saliva to gather up ants and small particles of food. Recently I photographed a bird picking up small pieces of suet with its tongue.
Ants are not only used for food, but for protection from feather-eating insects as the flickers engage in an “anting” behavior. A bird will lie on the ground near an anthill, allowing the ants to climb in their feathers where the ants will secrete formic acid on the feathers that repel lice and other feather-eating insects.
We are enjoying our Red-shafted flickers and by feeding them suet cakes for fast food access, we have not had any damage done to our wooden building in their search for food. Expert birders recommend if you are getting damage from these beautiful birds, hang out a suet cake and cover the beginning holes with Mylar tape. This is reported to discourage the birds from creating more holes; so you change the bird from one kind of freeloader to another.
Remember – if you start a feeding program for birds, continue it until the weather warms and there are plenty of natural foods available.
If you observe a flicker with a yellow tail and wings in the Upper Snake River Valley, please let me know as I would love to see it.