Northern flickers are large gray-brown woodpeckers that are present in every state of the U.S and are seen both in woodland landscapes and foraging for ants on backyard lawns.
Keep reading our guide to discover if there are any key differences between the males and females of this colorful and noisy species.
Male and female northern flickers of both red-shafted and yellow-shafted varieties are similar in appearance and from a distance may be hard to distinguish for the untrained eye.
Northern flickers are one of the only woodpecker species in North America that isn’t black and white, the key differences between a male and female lie in the birds’ facial markings: in males, there is a red or black ‘mustache’ facial stripe which is absent in females.
Female Northern Flicker
Male Northern Flicker
Female Northern Flickers lack the red or black facial stripe that males have, but otherwise look fairly similar.
Like the males of the species, female northern flickers have a black U-shaped bib on their breast. Their wings are barred with black markings, and their chest and belly are speckled with black spots. In flight, a white patch is visible above the tail.
Both males and females have colored feathers on the underside of their wings and tail – yellow markings are primarily found in birds in the eastern U.S. and red in western regions.
Female yellow-shafted northern flickers have a salmon-peach colored face, a gray crown, and red patch on their nape. In red-shafted females, the face is also a buff-peach color, the crown and nape are gray and there is no red nape patch.
Male birds have either a red or black facial stripe, running from the bill to the throat. This marking is absent in female birds.
Female Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus luteus) in flight
Female northern flickers are mostly a grayish-brown, with a peach-colored face. It has a black bib on its breast, and its wings are marked with black bars. The underside of its wings and tail shaft vary depending on what subspecies it is: red-shafted northern flickers are found in the west and yellow-shafted are the most common variant in the east.
Females typically weigh less than males and are also slightly smaller in length and wingspan. The average mass of a female northern flicker is typically towards the lower end of the 110 to 160 g (3.9 to 5.6 oz) range. Both sexes fall in the average range of 28 to 31 cm (11 to 12 in).
Male (left) and Female (right) Northern Flickers perched on a stump
Male northern flickers are notably territorial birds, performing elaborate dances, jabbing at each other with their long bills, to claim a patch and drive away other males, while females tend to observe but not actively participate in the displays.
Likened to fencing duels, these clashes, known as ‘wicka’ dances because of the loud and repetitive call that accompanies the action may play a role in pair formation but this is unconfirmed.
Both male and female northern flickers are highly vocal birds, with a range of distinctive calls, sounds and prolonged periods of intense drumming.
Females are heard slightly less frequently than males, and while drumming is a predominantly male action, females do engage in response drumming as a form of communication and a way of alerting a partner to threats.
Sounds and calls of female northern flickers include a loud ‘wick-wick-wick-wick-wick’ song, as well as a long call with individual notes that sound like a loud ‘klee-yer’.
Female Flicker on a tree
It is unclear whether the final say on a nest site is down to the male or the female northern flicker, as both situations have been regularly observed.
Together, pairs scour their woodland habitats for a trunk or large branch in a dead or diseased tree that is large enough for a cavity to be excavated. Tapping communication between both birds may indicate a sign of approval when a suitable site has been identified.
Excavation is a shared job between males and females, although in some cases males undertake a weightier chunk of the work. Observations show that both sexes engage in periods of intense excavating activity at different stages of the excavation, with female participation noted to increase as the cavity nears completion.
Female Northern Flicker looking inside a nesting cavity
Once eggs are laid, incubation is shared between females and males for around 11 days, with males assuming responsibility for all overnight duties.
Newly hatched chicks are also brooded by females and males in turn for the first four days of life, with both parents alternating trips away from the cavity to return with food.
Daytime incubation and initial brooding is mostly undertaken by female northern flickers, while the males remain nearby to defend the nest site from intruders.
Research shows that feeding of newly hatched northern flicker chicks is typically shared evenly between the female and male parent while young are in the nest cavity, and parental care from both parents continues for a short period after fledging.
Female Northern Flicker perched on a boulder
Northern flickers have an average life expectancy of up to 8 years, which has been recorded as a maximum of 9 years and 2 months, with no differentiation in survival rates between male and female birds.
Both females and males reach maturity and breed for the first time within their first year of life, with productivity of females reaching a peak in clutch size in their third year.
Female and male northern flickers share incubation duties and both take responsibility for feeding the young once they have hatched.
In typical circumstances, males relieve females of overnight incubation duties, beginning just after sunset until just before sunrise, showing that northern flicker parenting is very much a joint effort.
For a lone mother, predation while she is away from the nest would be a real risk to the survival of the young chicks. Once fledged from the cavity, both parents continue to support the juveniles, and there is no available data to show how successful a single bird would be at foraging for food while ensuring chicks are safe from harm.
Female Red-shafted Northern Flicker perched on a branch
Female northern flickers do call, and share the same songs and vocalizations as males, including tapping and drumming. However, females are observed to call, drum and tap less frequently than males.
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