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And then there were flickers

By Robert Tougias

Publication: The Day

Published April 11. 2014 4:00AM

Now is the time to venture out to where a forest meets a meadow and look for the northern flicker. If the woodland is mature and the meadow isn't deep with weeds, the odds of meeting this woodpecker increase.

When I was a young boy, I lived near such a place and knew the flicker well. I knew he was brash, confident and acutely alert to all who entered his domain. I knew he was watching my every move from far above. I would look up high into the canopy as he worked his way along towering branches and wonder when might he startle me again with his piercing call.

I even found a place on a sandy hill where I could watch the flicker searching for food in the short grass meadow. At other times, I would unexpectedly flush the flicker out of the grass in front of me while cutting through the meadow. What I knew best is that this woodpecker is like none other and definitely a unique bird in my world.

How odd, I thought, for a woodpecker to spend most of its time on the ground eating ants. Instead of excavating dead wood for insects like other woodpeckers, northern flickers mine topsoil with their beaks and lap up ants with their 2-inch-long tongues. Flickers are the only woodpeckers in our region that are predominately migratory, leaving the cold behind each fall. And unlike others of their kind, flickers often return to the same nest cavity each spring.

What I didn't know is that the northern flicker is one of the most widely ranged bird species in all of North America. Just a few years ago ornithologists thought there were three distinct species of flicker: the red-shafted flicker in the West, yellow-shafted flicker here in the East and the gilded flicker of the true Southwest. Today, with molecular classification, we know the red-shafted and yellow shafted are one species.

We knew them as "yellow hammers" where I grew up and they were much more prolific. While they remain common in some places, other areas like Colchester have few if any. They winter over quite well by eating fruit and taking advantage of our suet offerings.

Nobody knows just why they are declining, but many theories abound. It might be pesticide use on lawns or it could be competition for nesting cavities, but it is important that birders do their part by refraining from pesticide use and placing out nesting boxes made to specification.

When you see the northern flicker, either the white rump, red nape or the flashy yellow under the wings will catch your attention. You can tell them apart from other woodpeckers at the feeder by their size. Only the red-bellied woodpecker, which lacks the flicker's tawny plumage, comes close.

Nothing, however, rivals the brazen antics of the northern flicker. To see a flicker in full action is a thrill not to be forgotten - but to know the bird each day as I once did is a transformation.

Soon, the April winds will bring the flicker back and with their return from the south will come sweet memories.

Birding author Robert Tougias lives in Colchester. He is available for color slide lectures and can be reached at rtougias@snet.net.

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