Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are a widespread member of the woodpecker family. These unique birds range throughout the open woodlands of northern North America.
Like other woodpecker species, the Northern flicker is a cavity nester. It excavates its nest in dead or diseased trees with a specially adapted bill that allows it to chisel away bark and wood chips.
This woodpecker species noticeably prefers nesting in aspen. However, because the flicker inhabits a wide range, their nesting habitat is exceptionally diverse.
We will discuss the Northern flicker’s habitat and other nesting preferences in more detail below. Read on to discover more!
Northern Flickers, like other woodpecker species, are cavity nesters
Northern flickers are primarily cavity nesters. Like other woodpeckers, they excavate or reuse holes in dead trees or snags. Occasionally, they are also found nesting in old burrows abandoned by kingfishers or bank swallows.
The flicker covers a broad range of habitats throughout North America. They show a significant preference for nesting in quaking aspen trees (likely because heart rot is common, softening the wood and making it easier to excavate).
However, aspen is not the only nest tree chosen by the flicker. They will nest in an array of tree species, including oak and pine snags.
Northern flickers return to the same breeding territory year after year but don’t always reuse the same nesting cavity. If the nest location was successful and largely undisturbed, they are more likely to return (or at least excavate a new nest in the same tree).
Northern flickers will nest in backyards if the space offers their preferred habitat - open woodland, forest edge, or savannah. If you live within or on the edge of an aspen grove or other suitable woodland with dead trees or snags, your backyard is likely to naturally attract flickers.
Male Northern Flicker outside of the nesting cavity
Certain nest boxes are attractive to Northern flickers. Because they are cavity nesters, these birds like to excavate their nests.
Wood-shaving-filled structures are available for this purpose. The shavings provide flicker pairs an opportunity to excavate - which is part of their mating behavior.
Northern flickers nest in various dead or diseased tree species. Though they have a propensity for quaking aspen, they also excavate nest holes in oak, pine, spruce, and fir.
Nest cavity height is variable amongst Northern Flicker populations. On average, nests are excavated 6-15 feet off the ground. The distance from the ground is primarily determined by the chosen tree or snag height.
In areas where trees are shorter and scrubbier, cavities will be much closer to the ground.
On the other hand, nests are placed higher in regions (such as the Northwest) where tree heights are greater. There are records of nests occurring over 100 feet above the ground.
A pair of young Northern Flicker chicks looking out of the nesting hole
Northern flicker nest cavities are typically cylindrical, with the entrance wide enough for an adult to travel in and out. Inside, the nest expands and curves downward, providing enough space for the adults to turn around. The nest floor is concave and covered with wood chips.
Flicker eggs rest directly on top of the woodchips - a product of the excavation.
The cavity entrance to a northern flicker nest measures about 3 inches in diameter. Inside, the nest is typically 13-16 inches deep. The bottom is the widest part, leaving room for eggs and one adult.
Northern Flicker returning back to the nesting hole
Breeding season for Northern flickers typically begins in late winter or early spring and ends mid-summer. Depending on the region, mate formation may occur as early as February or as late as mid-April.
Once a pair has formed, nest excavation begins. Cavity building can take anywhere between 11-20 days.
Female flickers typically lay eggs sometime between early May and mid-June. Chicks hatch 9-10 days after the last egg is laid. After about 24 days in the nest, the young flickers fledge but remain with their parents for a while longer.
Northern Flickers typically nest for a little over a month. Incubation begins once all eggs are laid. The chicks hatch after a nine or ten-day incubation period. Hatching marks the beginning of the nestling period, which typically lasts 25-28 days.
Northern Flicker removing fecal sac from the nest
Female Northern flickers typically lay their eggs between early May and mid-June. Timing primarily depends on the weather. In colder regions, nesting occurs later, while flickers typically breed earlier where winter and spring are warmer.
Northern flickers also nest in cavities in the winter. Most flicker populations are year-round residents, meaning they remain within or near their breeding territories all year.
Flickers in Alaska and northern and central Canada are the only populations considered migratory. Because winters in these northernmost regions are extreme, these birds migrate south, likely nesting in abandoned cavities.
Close up of a adult Flicker feeding two hungry chicks
Northern flickers are woodpeckers. They excavate their nests by chipping and chiseling away tree bark and wood chips with their bills. If you have ever seen a woodpecker, you know they do so by clinging to the trunk and using their tail as a prop.
Once an opening has formed, the birds perch on the lip and continue excavating the interior.
Wood Chips are the only nesting material Northern flickers use. These are the byproducts of excavation.
Male and female Northern flickers take part in nest excavation. Although, records show that the male performs most of the nest construction.
Close up of a Northern Flicker excavating and building the nest cavity
Northern flicker eggs are ovate. Egg size varies amongst populations, but minimum to maximum measurements generally range between 1.86-3.65 cm in length and 1.60-3.31 cm in width.
The shell color is purely white and semi-glossy. However, eggs may appear pinkish until about five days into incubation because the vibrant orange yolk shines through.
On average, Northern flickers lay 5 to 8 eggs per breeding season. They do not produce a second brood in the same year.
Male Northern flickers assist in incubation. They typically sit on the eggs throughout the night, while the female incubates during the day.
Three Northern Flicker chicks looking outside of the nest
Baby Northern flickers typically leave the nest 25-28 days after hatching. However, they are not yet fully independent. Juvenile flickers remain with their parents for some time after fledging.
Northern flickers have only one brood per season. Mated pairs do not have time for a second nest because nestlings usually do not fledge until July and remain with their parents at least until the end of the summer.
If the first nest is unsuccessful, a flicker pair may attempt a second nest in the same season.
Close up of a Northern Flicker peeking outside of the nest
Northern flickers rarely abandon their nests. Once the eggs are laid, one parent is with the nestlings at all times. They will likely only abandon a nest if the eggs are unsuccessful.
The Northern flicker does not nest on the ground. However, it occasionally nests in burrows abandoned by other bird species.
Northern flickers are cavity nesters. They sleep in cavities at night during and outside of the breeding season.
Wood-shaving-filled nest boxes are an excellent way to attract Northern flickers. The shavings provide flicker pairs an opportunity to excavate, which is part of their mating behavior.
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