Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are migratory members of the woodpecker family, widespread across North and Central America that are frequently seen feasting on ants on the forest floor. Adult northern flickers are easily identified by their black bib, speckled chest and distinctive red or black mustache stripe.
Two distinct subspecies exist. Dominant in the East are yellow-shafted flickers, with tan faces, gray crowns, red napes, a black facial stripe and yellow underwings and tail. Red-shafted flickers are found in the West and have gray faces, brown crowns, a red facial stripe and salmon underwings and tail.
In our guide to juvenile northern flickers, we will be finding out whether young birds share the same appearance as adults, and if not, when their distinctive characteristics start to develop.
Keep reading to learn more about the typical early lives, feeding habits, and parental care of these young woodpeckers.
When they initially hatch, northern flicker chicks are featherless and undeveloped. They do not develop down, and it is not until day 6 that the first traces of feathers begin to appear.
Pin feathers are present from day 7 to 8 onwards, and by day 11 their eyes have begun to partially open. Feather growth becomes more rapid as the young enter their second week of life.
From day 17 to day 23, flight feathers and tail feathers grow and unfold, and the crown coloration becomes slightly visible.
By the time they are ready to fledge, juvenile northern flickers resemble adults but are smaller, duller in plumage, and their feathers are more downy.
Both males and female juveniles of both red and yellow-shafted northern flickers have a barred back, spotted front and black bib, but their markings are marginally less pronounced and overall coloring is more subdued.
Northern Flicker chicks in the cavity nest
Juvenile Northern Flicker
Data collected during the period between hatching and fledging, records northern flicker chicks as weighing between 5 and 6 g immediately after hatching, rising to 11.8 g the following day.
Throughout the nesting period, their mass rises steadily, until around day 19, when they maintain a stable weight of around 114 g, which then drops slightly at the time of fledging. Juvenile males are consistently marginally heavier than females.
The downy feathers of newly fledged northern flickers are gradually replaced with stronger flight feathers during a series of partial molts, culminating in a definitive prebasic molt in the first few months after they leave the nest.
The molt is complete by the end of October, at which point the young birds will migrate to their wintering grounds.
Juvenile Northern Flicker on the ground
Young juvenile northern flickers are fed by regurgitation by both parents. Typical food consists of ants and ant larvae, and feeding frequency increases from 10 visits per day immediately after hatching to up to 50 visits a day later in the nesting period.
Once northern flickers have left the nest, they follow their parents to local feeding grounds and gradually master the art of feeding themselves without relying on support from their mother or father.
Once left the nest, juvenile Northern Flickers quickly adopt the diet of an adult. Although ants, ant larvae and beetles form the biggest share of a northern flicker’s diet, fruit and seeds are also eaten, particularly in winter months.
Adult Northern Flicker feeding recently fledged juvenile
Unlike many birds, juvenile northern flickers’ first plumage matches that of adult birds, although is slightly softer and less bright.
Northern flickers are born without any feathers or down covering, and the first feathers that appear during the second week of life give them their first full plumage, similar in appearance to that of adults.
These feathers are gradually replaced as they undergo a definitive prebasic molt in the first four months after leaving the nest.
Fledging takes place between 24 and 28 days after hatching. Prior to fledging, frequency of parental feeds declines and young birds are motivated to leave the nest to search for food, encouraged by parents whose calls are heard from outside the nest.
Following their initial flight of up to 50 m (165 ft) when leaving the nest, juvenile northern flickers do not return to the cavity.
Observations show that shortly after they fledge, young northern flickers leave the nest area following their parents to foraging grounds and quickly become independent as parental support is gradually withdrawn during the weeks after leaving the cavity.
Recently fledged Northern Flicker chick with downy feathers
A common sound among northern flicker nestlings is a frantic buzzing that can be heard when either parent bird returns to the nest cavity. This sound is first heard shortly after chicks hatch and continues until hatchlings are almost ready to fledge.
Young birds develop a ‘peah’ call before they fledge. This sound can be heard from juvenile northern flickers as they peer out from the nest cavity opening.
Cute as it is to imagine, northern flicker family reunions aren’t really a ‘thing.’ Northern flickers are migratory birds and they return to the same area each year once the breeding season is imminent.
However, as they can be highly territorial birds particularly during the breeding season, they do not tolerate other birds on their patch, regardless of family connections.
New territories will be claimed by returning juvenile birds that have come of age in roughly the same geographical area that they hatched in the previous year.
Northern flickers are not social birds and although may be seen foraging in the same area as other birds, they tend to prefer to keep a distance from other birds of the same species.
Adult (left) and juvenile (right) Northern Flicker waiting to be fed
Northern flickers breed for the first time within their first year of life, and much of the breeding population of the species consists of birds that are a year old.
The maximum lifespan of northern flickers is recorded as 9 years 2 months, although survival of adult birds from one year to the next is relatively low, at a rate of 43 percent.
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