For the Birds Radio Program: Flicker

Original Air Date: July 4, 1997

Today’s program is about the woodpecker who hops on lawns. 4:10

Audio missing


Woodpeckers are known for slamming their faces into trees while clinging to branches or the trunk, but one of the most common backyard woodpeckers spends the majority of its mealtimes with its feet firmly planted on the ground, slurping up ants. Ant bodies are laced with formic acid which gives them a bitter taste that most birds shun, allowing ants to mill about on sidewalks pretty much unmolested . But flickers enjoy that acrid taste, which in tum gives their meat a bitter flavor. Eating flickers is against modem state and federal laws, but back in the 1700s and 1800s they were commonly sold in meat markets. Many people liked them, but others, including John James Audubon, found the bitterness of their meat disgusting.

Fortunately, flickers suit most people’ s taste without being eaten. Their lemon yellow wing linings, black speckling on breast and back, a crimson crescent moon on the nape of their necks, and a dapper black patch across the upper breast make them a welcome sight on lawns, though they’re less welcome when drumming at 4 in the morning on your rain gutter or a nearby oil tank.

Woodpeckers hammer on wood for three different reasons. One is food. Even though flickers eat ants, they still listen for insects chewing within bark and wood, which they dig out for food.

Also, woodpeckers hammer against trees to construct nest and sleeping holes. We see the surface–the round, simple door that leads to a chamber hidden deep within. Almost all woodpeckers are fairly solitary and although flickers are more sociable than most, even they prefer sleeping alone. The babies are reared in the male’s hole, so he is the one who sleeps with them, but unlike mammals, he never has to deal with night feedings or diaper changes. To make up for duty-free nights, both parents spend virtually every waking moment feeding and caring for the young. Raising baby birds is intense and all-consuming, but lasts only weeks before the babies fledge and go off on their own after which the parents have 10 or 11 months off for good behavior before going through the ordeal again.

The third reason woodpeckers hammer is to make noise to draw pairs together and drive competitors away. The louder the sound, the farther it carries , so woodpeckers search out the loudest, most resonant structure on their territories for early morning drumming–a source of great pleasure for them and enormous annoyance for the poor humans trying to sleep nearby.

Although plenty of flickers hatch out in suburban backyards each summer, it’s rare to actually see small babies of these or other cavity dwellers. Baby robins and jays have lots of branches beneath their nests to catch them as they make their first practice jumps and flights, but flickers are high up with no safety net of branches and a low probability of finding and getting back into the right nest before they can fly, so nestlings bide their time until they are completely feathered out and almost entirely grown. The first time a flicker flies at all, it is capable of powered flight.

A family stays together for weeks after the young leave the nest, parents teaching children the best food sources and the best ways for extracting it from trees and the ground. The babies learn their lessons well, and often stick with their siblings even longer, figuring out together how to survive in the big world so that there will always be flickers about to brighten our days and keep us wide awake at four in the morning.