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Feeding feisty flickers

Insistent young ones are another reminder that being a bird parent is hard work

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 7/10/19

Being a good parent is hard work. Just ask the pair of northern flickers who recently raised a nest full of young ones in a quaking aspen near our house. As with young humans, a newly-hatched flicker …

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Feeding feisty flickers

Insistent young ones are another reminder that being a bird parent is hard work

Posted

Being a good parent is hard work. Just ask the pair of northern flickers who recently raised a nest full of young ones in a quaking aspen near our house. As with young humans, a newly-hatched flicker chick isn’t too much trouble. Like most baby birds, flickers are born naked and pink with their eyes closed. They know instinctively to open their mouths when mom or dad arrives with a mouthful of chow, and it takes them several days before they become truly insistent about it.

But give them a couple weeks to grow and watch out. By then, they’re literally climbing the walls (of their nest cavity, that is) as they jockey with their nest mates over who will get the lion’s share from mom’s or dad’s most recent visit.

It’s actually a remarkable transformation, from egg to nearly full-grown bird in a matter of just six weeks. Flickers incubate their eggs for about 12 days, give or take, and within three and a half weeks of hatching, they’re virtually spilling out of the nest. Which makes sense considering that a flicker might lay as many as six eggs. There might be room enough for that in the cramped confines of a seven-inch diameter nest cavity, but by the time the young birds are close to fledging, it’s got to be a tight squeeze in there.

And it’s not like they have other diversions to take their minds off of their primary objective, which is to demand as much food from mom and dad as possible. As they near full size, they jockey for a view from the nest opening, watching almost continuously and calling out for their next meal.

And when mom or dad shows up, it’s bedlam, as the young birds practically spill out the hole, mouths agape.

While flickers are technically a woodpecker, they don’t feed like most other woodpeckers. You’ll rarely find them excavating a hole or flaking bark off a tree in search of beetle grubs. Instead, they feed mostly on the ground, where they will excavate at times in search of their favorite food— ant larvae— which is probably what our backyard brood was being fed most of the time. But flickers will eat a wide variety of foods as they’re available, ranging from seeds to nuts to other insects. They’ll also eat sunflower seeds although they rarely make appearances at bird feeders.

From my experience, they tend to be quite wary, so this is one species I had experienced difficulty trying to photograph for years. Their decision to nest less than a stone’s throw from the house, helped some, but this nest was probably 20 feet in the air, so I donned my camo and used a ladder to position myself high enough to peer up through the thick dogwood underbrush with my camera directed at the nest hole. Then it was just a waiting game. The photo on the previous page is of the female flicker at the hole. The males in the eastern half of the U.S. sport a prominent black whisker, that starts at the base of their bill, which suggests the two gaping youngsters are both males. In the western U.S., the male’s whisker is red.

That’s an unusual difference, that would normally indicate two different species. In fact, the two varieties were considered separate for many years, which allowed bird listers to claim both the yellow-shafted (eastern variety with yellow wing and tail undersides) and the red-shafted flicker found from the Rockies west. But the two species hybridized just east of the Rockies (creating an orange-shafted variety), which prompted ornithologists to lump all three varieties under the single species name, northern flicker.

Flickers remain fairly common although their overall population has declined by nearly half in recent decades, which is true of many bird species, most likely due to habitat loss and the collective impacts of window strikes, roaming domestic cats, cell phone towers and the like.

There are many perils that did not exist in the past for our birds, and few seem to be benefitting from life in the modern age. Add in climate change, and the future for many bird species appears fraught.

But it’s nice, on occasion, to put aside those concerns, and enjoy what we have here right in front of us. Like a nestful of boisterous flickers, ready to take on the world.

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