Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are medium-sized woodpeckers found across most regions with woodland in the United States. Unlike most other woodpeckers, flickers in the north migrate to the southern parts of their range.
There are over 100 different names that these birds are known as, including the yellowhammer, gaffer woodpecker, yarrup and gawker bird. Most of these names are derived from the sounds and calls they make.
Because of their extensive range across the United States, the diet of flickers can vary a little. So let’s get into it; what do northern flickers eat?
Northern Flickers have diets primarily consisting of insects – mainly ants (around 45% of their diet). Predaceous ground beetles, flies, butterflies, moths and snails are also consumed. Other than insects, they will feed on fruits and seeds; however, this is generally during the winter, when insect populations are lower.
Because flickers mainly consume ants, they are mostly found foraging on the ground for their prey. This ground foraging usually takes place close to the edges of forests or nearby groups of trees.
Continue reading on for some fascinating facts about how flickers hunt, along with much more.
Northern Flicker foraging for ants on the ground
The most common seeds that Northern Flickers enjoy consuming are sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts and nyjer seeds. Although they sometimes consume these seeds, northern flickers do not habitually use bird feeders.
Because of this, your best chance of feeding them seeds will be to sprinkle a slight covering of these seeds on the ground.
Ants generally make up around 45% of a Northern Flickers total diet during the summer, but other invertebrates commonly hunted include flies, butterflies, snails, moths and beetles.
Predaceous ground beetles come in at a close second on the flickers favorite food list.
Notably, flickers are natural predators to the Corn Borer moth, especially in the winter. During this time, they can hunt and consume copious amounts of these crop pests.
A northern flicker with a muddy beak, after foraging for ants in the ground
Northern flickers mainly eat ants from these genera:
The species of ant plays a key role in how flickers will capture ants. In less aggressive species, northern flickers will happily feed on colonies. In contrast, more aggressive ant species will be picked off in smaller numbers - this tends to involve a lot of hopping around!
A northern flicker perched on the ground
Northern Flickers are diurnal birds, which means they feed pretty much anytime from dusk to dawn when it is daylight. Open woodlands are common places to find these woodpeckers feeding during these times.
When insects are less abundant during the winter, Northern Flickers eat a mixture of fruit and seeds. These include wild black cherries, blackberries, raspberries, flowering dogwood, sumac, poison ivy and frost grapes.
If they could, Northern Flickers would eat ants all year round, but during the colder winter months, ants naturally rest several feet down into the ground. This is because they are safer from the harsh elements and temperatures are much more consistent.
Because they are so far down in the ground, flickers are unable to get to the ants, and therefore have to switch their diets up to readily available foods – which happens to be seeds and fruits.
There is one insect source that is still readily available for flickers during the winter, and that is the larvae of the corn borer moth. These crop pests cost the US agriculture sector more than $1 billion each year due to crop losses.
Northern Flicker (yellow shafted) eating berries from a tree
During the summer, ants make up roughly half of a Northern Flickers diet. Other than ants, insects such as flies, moths and beetles are hunted on both the ground and occasionally caught in the air.
Seeds and fruits will also sometimes be consumed, but most of what flickers eat during the warmer summer months are insects.
Baby northern flickers are fed ants and ant larvae from their parents shortly after hatching. The ant and ant larvae are fed to the young by regurgitation.
Food is held in the pharynx (the part between the mouth and oesophagus), which forms a crop that is then filled full of ants and ant larvae.
Both male and female flickers share the feeding duties of the chicks and can make up to 50 feeding trips throughout the day.
Northern Flicker chicks are mainly fed ants from both their parents
Most woodpeckers feed by clinging to the side of trees; however, Northern Flickers are a bit of an anomaly as the majority of their foraging takes place on the ground, and they’re very rarely seen feeding from branches.
The primary way flickers forage for ants, and other insects is by drilling and hammering their strong bills into the ground. Once they find ants, they use their long sticky tongues to feast on adult ants and ant larvae.
Their tongues can reach out more than 4cm, which is extremely useful when it comes to hunting from the ground.
During the summer, flickers either forage on their own or in small groups, although this depends on the breeding density. These small groups can also contain other birds that feed on the ground, including starlings.
When the winter comes around, northern flickers can feed in larger groups of up to 12 birds, but others will continue to forage as a pair. Group foraging is much more common when a substantial amount of fruit is in their habitat.
Flicker pecking in the ground in search of insects and ants
Because Northern Flickers predominantly take their food from the ground (mainly ants), they are generally considered ground-feeding birds. However, sometimes insects are caught in the air.
This is rare and uncommon for most types of woodpeckers, but the similar trait of drilling their beaks into something in search of food is similar, it just so happens to be into the soil instead of a tree.
The best thing to feed Northern Flickers are insect suet blocks. These suet blocks contain insects that flickers love and are also packed full of protein, fat and energy to provide sufficient nutrition.
Other foods that can be placed in and on feeders include peanuts, grapes, sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts and corn.
Northern Flicker feeding on suet block in the backyard
Northern Flickers drink water, like most birds. They can often be spotted drinking water from brooks or at the edges of ponds and lakes. Natural bowls can be found throughout woodlands in their habitats, which they’ll also drink from when available – e.g. knot holes.
Northern Flicker drinking water
Feeding from bird feeders doesn’t come naturally to flickers, unlike many other species of birds. This isn’t to say that they will never feed from them; it just is a lot less likely.
One of the main reasons for this is because they love ants so much and will generally try and hunt for them instead.
So if you want to attract flickers to your yard, ensure you have plenty of ants around! Alternatively, suet bird feeders with suet cakes tend to work well.
Feeding on trays can also be effective, as, after all, they are ground feeding birds.
Norther Flicker eating sunflower seeds on a bird feeder tray
Suet blocks are one of the best things you can provide for northern flickers. They are high in protein, fat and energy that can help flicker populations thrive, particularly during the colder winter months, where their main food sources (ants) are scarce.
Northern Flickers will consume mealworms when provided in suitable feeders.
Peanuts are a great source of fat, fibre and protein for flickers. They will mostly feed on these during the winter and fall when insects are less abundant.
It’s common for Northern Flickers to eat fire ants, however, due to the aggressive nature of fire ants, flickers will often pick off the ants in smaller quantities as opposed to going straight after the colony.
Northern Flickers won’t eat baby birds and instead, stick to their diets of insects, fruits and seeds.
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