Foam Lake Birding No. 18

No. 18
Since the beginning of August, some Foam Lake residents have probably noticed Robin-sized brown birds on their lawns searching for something to eat. When the birds are scared up they flash a lot of yellow under their wings. These seemingly late arrivals are called Northern Flickers. They are actually present all summer, but are more numerous and, therefore, more noticeable after the young have fledged. For reasons previously stated, they shall be referred to simply as Flickers.
Flickers belong to a group of birds called woodpeckers that share one common characteristic – they all bore holes in dead and dying trees to make their nests. Nests are used only once, then become available to other cavity dwelling birds in future years. For some birds, their very existence depends on the availability of abandoned woodpecker holes. For these reasons, woodpeckers are sometimes referred to as carpenter birds. In fact, in Spanish they are known as Carpinteros! Needless to say, they cannot be attracted to birdhouses.
Not long ago Flickers were divided into three separate species – the Red Shafted, the Yellow Shafted and the Gilded. The Red Shafted occurs in the Rockies and out to the west coast; the Yellow Shafted occurs east of the Rockies (our local bird); the Gilded occurs in the American Southwest. Ranges of all three overlap somewhat, and here, crossbreeding is common. Therefore, ornithologists (bird experts) decided that all three were just colour phases of the same bird, and were now deemed to be merely forms or races. The new name was the Northern Flicker. Since then, the Gilded Flicker has been restored as a separate species leaving the other two still lumped together as the Northern Flicker. In all likelihood, the Northern Flicker will be, once again, split into the previous two species in the future. Time will tell.
All three are quite similar, but not overly so. The Yellow Shafted has yellow wing linings; the Red Shafted has salmon-red. When the birds fly up these colours stand out and provide easy identification. When perched the markings on the head are different. The Gilded looks like a cross between the other two. A good bird book will show the differences better than any word description can. There are similarities. All three have a clearly defined triangular shaped, black breast band; all have a clearly visible white patch on the lower back at the base of the tail; all make nearly identical sounds. The most common and memorable sound is a repeated and clear flick, flick, flick, . . . The name, Flicker, is derived from its call. Listen for it in the spring during courtship. .
There are five woodpeckers in our area, four of which are common. Of the five, Flickers are the least woodpecker-like. Like all woodpeckers, they cling to tree trunks and power poles in search of food and sites for nest holes; unlike other woodpeckers they perch on branches and power lines, and search for food on the ground. In many ways they behave like Robins or sparrows.
They are selective as to what they eat when on the ground. Their favourite food is ants! They not only eat ants, but rub them on their feathers much the same way people use underarm deodorant. This process is called anting. Nobody is quite sure why it is done, but the general consensus is that the formic acid in the ant’s body keeps parasites away.
Because of their lifestyles, Flickers are great to have around the yard. Quite a few years ago, ants decided to establish a colony in our front lawn. I tried everything from commercial poisons to boiling water to get rid of them, but nothing worked. As it happened, we were away for a week and when we returned, the ants were gone. The anthill was scattered and an area about the size of a dinner plate was covered with holes. It seemed as if a deranged golfer could not decide where to stick in his golf tee. These holes were made by Flickers’ bills as they were probing the hill for ants. This year, ants were particularly bad and some had even colonized one of our flower pots. Again, we were away for several days and when we returned the infested flower pot was a mess with dirt scattered everywhere, but there were no ants. A Flicker had cleaned them out. We, also, had a good sized colony of ants under our patio steps. For several weeks now, one or two Flickers would be there “doing their thing” under the step. I have not checked, but I am guessing that the ant colony is gone. I certainly do like Flickers.
Males and females are similar, except that males have a black moustache (of course). Both parents are active in rearing their young. This week’s photo, taken on our front lawn, shows a parent “teaching” a juvenile how to search for ants. The parent, a male, would move about the lawn until it found something, then call the youngster. The “student” would come and the two would peck away furiously for a short while, then the process would be repeated. We will not be able to observe Flickers much longer, because unlike most woodpeckers, they are migratory and will be gone for the winter.