Bird Feeder Hub is reader-supported. When you click and buy we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

Northern Flicker (Overview)

While the word woodpecker isn’t in their name, the Northern Flicker is indeed a member of the woodpecker family. They share many of the same adaptations and behaviors of other woodpecker species, but with enough unique characteristics of their own to stand apart. You’ll know there is something special about this species when you see them pecking at your lawn instead of a tree, and note their beautiful black polka dots and brightly colored underwing feathers.

In this article, we’ll start with a general overview of the Northern Flicker, then delve into some fascinating facts about this charismatic bird, and finish by providing tips on how you can attract Northern Flickers to your backyard.


The Northern Flicker has an extensive range across North America. It is found throughout the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico! Across Canada and into Alaska, flickers are only present during the the spring and summer. Once it starts to get cold, they head for the southern U.S. or northern Mexico. 

Across the United States, most flickers stay put all year round. They are widespread from coast to coast, including both urban and rural areas. Flickers are adaptable to various habitats, including woodlands, forest edges, open fields, and even suburban areas. 

Interestingly, the flickers found in the eastern U.S. look a little different than those found in the western U.S. Let’s talk more about their distinct appearance next. 


split screen comparison of yellow shafted and red shafted flicker
Two Northern Flicker Varieties (males)

Most of the woodpeckers in the U.S. are black & white with stripes. Flickers however, showcase more unique colors and patterns. Their light underparts are covered in black spots, with a solid black patch at the top of the chest. Along their back, their wings are a grayish-brown with dark barring. Males have a large stripe on either side of their beak like a mustache, while the females do not. They also sport a big white patch above their tail, visible in flight. The regional differences can be seen in the color they have on the underside of their wings and tail, and the colors and patterns on their head.

In the eastern half of the country you get the “yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker. They have bright yellow feathers on the underside of their wings and tail. Their face is a peachy color, with gray along the top of their head and a red patch at the nape. Males mustache stripe is black.

In the western half of the country, you get the “red-shafted” Northern Flicker. They have bright red feathers on the underside of their wings and tail. Their head is mostly gray with brown along the top of the head. Males mustache stripe is red.


Northern Flickers are versatile birds that inhabit a wide range of environments. Their preferred habitat is open forests with scattered trees and ample ground cover, where they can easily forage for insects and find suitable nesting sites in tree cavities. This mix of open and wooded areas provides the ideal environment for Northern Flickers to thrive.

Although they do need at least some trees in their environment, because they forage on the ground quite often they can do well in open fields and grasslands. They’ve also adapted well to human-altered landscapes, easily making their home in parks, gardens and residential areas. Flickers also like wet areas such as flooded swampland, marsh edges and woods along streams and rivers.


Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker searching for insects on a lawn | image via Deposit Photos

The Northern Flickers diet primarily consisting of insects, particularly ants and beetles. They are one of the few woodpecker species that forage on the ground. They can use their beak to dig into the soil the same way they would the bark of a tree, and use their long, barbed tongues to extract ants, their larvae, and other insects. Ants make up a significant portion of their diet, and they can consume thousands in a single day.

In addition to insects, Northern Flickers enjoy fruits and berries, especially during the fall and winter months when insects are less abundant. Some of their favorite fruits include wild cherries, dogwood, hackberries and sumac berries. They also consume seeds and nuts, particularly those from trees like oak and pine. 


Flickers create cavities in diseased, dying or dead tree trunks because the wood is softer and easier to carve into. Nest holes are about 6-15 feet off the ground, but can be higher. Both males and females work on the excavation, which creates a cavity about 13-18 inches deep with a 3 inch diameter entrance hole. The widest part of the cavity is at the bottom, which is lined with a bed of wood chips that the eggs will rest on. 

Five to eight white eggs are laid at a time, and incubated for 11-13 days. Once hatched, the babies will remain in the nest cavity for 24-27 days before fledging, with food brought to them by both mom and dad. Around day 17, they will begin to cling to the sides of the cavity rather than sleeping on the ground.

northern flicker nest hole male
Male Northern Flicker peeking out of its nest hole | image via Deposit Photos


Northern Flickers are known for their distinctive and varied vocalizations. Here are some common sounds they make:

  • Rolling Flick Call: A loud rolling call with a piercing tone, sounds like they are saying “flick-flick-flick” over and over in rapid succession for 7-8 seconds at a time. Most often used in the spring or early summer while males and females are pairing up and establishing territory. Sounds similar to the Pileated Woodpecker’s wicking call.
  • Klee-yer Call: A sharp, clear “klee-yer” or “clear” call is given as a single note. This single note is repeated with 1-2 seconds of silence in-between. The clear call is frequently used when the flickers is alarmed or disturbed. It often means they have spotted a predator nearby, like an owl, hawk or cat.
  • Wicka Call: A soft, repeated “wicka-wicka-wicka” sound is used when displaying for their potential mate or when their mate is close by. It is often accompanied by head bobbing. 
  • Drumming: Like other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers drum on trees, metal objects, or other resonant surfaces to communicate and attract mates. The drumming consists of a rapid series of taps that can carry over long distances.

Interesting Facts About Northern Flickers

northern flicker red male
Red-shafted Northern Flicker (male) preening his wing | image by:
  • In a strip down the middle of the country where the eastern “yellow-shafted” variety range ends and the western “red-shafted” variety range starts, the two interbreed, creating a hybrid that has characteristics of both. 
  • Many woodpecker species create new nest holes each year, but flickers often reuse their cavities from previous years, or cavities made by other woodpeckers from previous years. 
  • On rare occasions they have been observed reusing earthen bank swallow and belted kingfisher burrows.
  • In early spring and summer, these woodpeckers sometimes engage in a “fencing duel” while a prospective mate watches. The two birds will face each other of a branch, point their bills upward and bob their heads in time and drawing loops in the air, all while making “wicka-wicka” calls. 
  • Northern Flickers will look for objects to drum on that will make the loudest, most resonant sounds they can. They often includes satellite dishes, metal gutters, metal chimney caps, stop signs and other metal objects. Their jackhammer-like sound can carry for up to a half mile away under the right conditions. 

Find more fun flicker facts here

How To Attract Northern Flickers

attracting flickers collage
A few ways to attract Northern Flickers – suet, berries and birdhouses

Attracting Northern Flickers to your backyard can be rewarding and enjoyable. Here are ten effective ways to entice these beautiful woodpeckers to visit:

1. Provide Suet Feeders

Northern Flickers can be harder to attract to backyard feeder than other species, but they do enjoy suet. Hang a large sized (to match their body size) suet feeder to lure them in, especially during colder months. 

2. Offer Mealworms 

As insect eaters, both live and dried mealworms can be a great food source for flickers. If you want to try attracting them using mealworms, make sure to use a larger sized open feeder that can accommodate their size, such as a dish or tray. 

3. Install Nest Boxes

Flickers are cavity nesters. Providing a properly sized nest box can attract them, especially if natural cavities are scarce in your area. Good dimensions for a flicker nest box are an entrance hole of 2.5 inches, depth of 24 inches and inside width of 7.25 inches square. Hang the box 6-12 feet off the ground, if possible with the entrance hole facing south or east. 

*Tip: flickers like to feel like they are digging out their own cavity. You can make your box more attractive by filling it with to the top with white pine wood chips, allowing them to engage in the natural behavior of ‘carving out’ the hole. 

4. Plant Berry-Producing Shrubs

In the fall and winter months, Northern Flickers add fruits into their diet, typically in the form of berries. Having one or more shrubs or trees that produce berries can increase the chances of flickers visiting your yard. Some good choices are dogwood, serviceberry, bayberry, wild grape, wild cherry, sumac, hackberry and elderberry.

5. Provide Water Sources

Northern Flickers do visit bird baths both for drinking and bathing. Ensure the water is shallow and clean, and consider adding a dripper or fountain to attract more attention. Also remember they are large birds (falling between robin-sized and crow-size), so a larger basin will ensure they can stop for a bath.

6. Maintain Dead Trees

Dead or decaying trees (snags) offer natural nesting and foraging sites. If safe, leave these trees standing to provide habitat.

7. Create Ground Foraging Areas

Flickers often forage on the ground for ants and other insects. Maintain both open areas of lawn and “undisturbed” ground with leaf litter to provide them with foraging areas. Avoid excessive pesticide use to support a healthy insect population.

Ant Mounds: If you have ant mounds in your yard, leave them undisturbed as long as they are not in a place that pose a threat to you or your pets. Flickers are particularly attracted to areas with abundant ants.

8. Provide Mixed Seed Feeders

While flickers primarily eat insects, they also consume seeds and nuts and may stop by your feeders to check them out, especially in the cold weather months. Offer a mix of sunflower seeds, peanuts, and other nuts in platform or tray feeders. Many of your other backyard birds will love this set-up, and you may get the occasional visit from flickers!

Leave a Comment