Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Gilded flickers are sandy brown with darker brown barring on their wings and back, which provides effective camouflage against the desert floor. Their breast and belly are off-white, spotted with black markings, with a large crescent-shaped black bib on the upper breast.
The edges and underside of the wings are bright yellow, which is a distinguishing feature in flight, as is a large white rump patch. The tail is black, edged with gold
Facial markings include a rusty-brown cap, which extends into a gray-brown nape. The lower face is pale gray, with a distinctive red cheek stripe in males. The bill is brown, darkening to black during the breeding season and the eyes are a deep reddish brown.
Female gilded flickers can be told apart from males due to the absence of the red facial stripe. Otherwise, males and females are alike in both coloring and size.
Juvenile gilded flickers have similar markings to adults, but the coloring is less bold. The cheek stripe and black bib may be visible, but far less obvious, and they are altogether less vibrant.
Gilded Flicker Male foraging for insects
Smaller than their northern counterparts, gilded flickers are relatively large members of the woodpecker family. There is no difference in size or weight between the sexes.
A ‘wik-ka’ call can frequently be heard as a contact call, during territory formation and during courtship early in the breeding season. A loud, high-pitched ‘kik-kik-kik’ call carries across long distances and is a familiar sound in Sonoran Desert landscapes. They are also known to tap or drum on metal objects, including telegraph posts or fence poles.
The diet of gilded flickers is mainly based on insects, especially ants, which they forage from the desert floor, probing into anthills. Beetles, termites, caterpillars, and larvae are also common. They also eat cactus fruits, flowers, and seeds, particularly in winter.
Young gilded flickers are fed by their parents, who regurgitate ants and ant larvae into their bills.
Gilded Flicker feeding on a cactus plant
The dry climate of the Sonoran Desert is crucial to the survival of gilded flickers, and they are strongly associated with landscapes with dense concentrations of saguaro and Mexican giant cardon cacti, in which they build their nest cavities. In northern parts of their range, gilded flickers may occasionally nest in deciduous trees alongside streams, particularly cottonwood, and willow.
Gilded flickers are only found in the desert landscapes of the extreme southwestern US and north western Mexico. Central Arizona forms the upper and eastern extent of their range, with occasional and rarer records in southwestern Canada and the southern tip of Nevada.
To the south, the range extends over the border with Mexico along the entire length of Baja California and over a small area of northwestern Mexico.
The total estimated population of the species is 770,000, of which 240,000 individuals live in the United States and the rest in Mexico.
Within the US, gilded flickers are limited to a region in the southwestern corner of the country, encompassing central and southwestern Arizona and smaller patches of southern Nevada and southeastern California. Arizona is home to the majority of gilded flickers in the US, with Pima, Pinal, and La Paz counties recording the highest numbers.
Gilded flickers are a common species in the Sonoran Desert, particularly in south-central Arizona. They are also relatively widespread in riverside groves and desert landscapes across their range, and their habit of nesting in cavities drilled out in giant saguaro cacti makes them fairly easy to spot in landscapes with desert vegetation.
The Sonoran Desert offers the best chances of sighting a gilded flicker in the United States. Look among the giant saguaro and giant Cardon cactus vegetation in south-central Arizona.
Gilded flickers are a southern species and are never found as far north as Canada. They thrive in desert climates and do not usually stray beyond central Arizona, making a Canadian sighting extremely unlikely.
Female Gilded Flicker perched on a barrel cactus in the desert
Little confirmed data is available for the average lifespan of gilded flickers, but the oldest recorded individual, identified from a banding program, was 6 years and 4 months.
Gilded flickers face competition from European starlings for nest sites, but the flickers are usually the victors in any conflict. Natural predators include snakes, lizards, rodents, hawks and ravens, and squirrels.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects gilded flickers, their eggs, nests, and their young. This legislation makes it a federal offense to kill, injure, capture, or trade individual birds without a licence.
Population declines are evident and habitat is increasingly lost to development or brush fires. The US population declined by 54 percent between 1970 and 2014. However, due to the much larger and more stable population to the south in Mexico, gilded flickers are classified as a species of least concern globally.
Gilded Flicker in natural habitat
The most usual nesting spots for gilded flickers are cavities excavated in giant saguaro cacti. These nests account for around 90 percent of all gilded flickers’ nests. Where a suitable saguaro cannot be found, they may use trees in riverside woodlands, especially cottonwoods and willows.
A nest cavity is drilled out near the top of the saguaro cactus, and no additional lining is used. Nests are usually around 6 m (20 ft) above ground level and pairs work together to excavate the chamber.
Nest construction begins early in the year before temperatures rise. Eggs are laid in April, with incubation believed to be around 11 to 12 days. There is a lack of verified data on exact timings, due to the species’ preference for remote nesting sites, which limits observation of nests and nesting behavior.
Both males and females take turns to incubate, with males’ incubating overnight and during part of the day. Fledging takes place after around 4 weeks.
Gilded flicker eggs are pure white, and measure 29 mm by 21 mm (1.1 in by 0.8 in). A typical clutch contains around 4 eggs.
We don’t know much about the pair bonds formed by gilded flickers and how long they last. They are believed to choose a mate early in the year, with pairs observed in February. One brood is raised together in a typical season.
Gilded Flicker looking out from his nest cavity in a Saguaro cactus
During the breeding season, both male and female gilded flickers will aggressively defend their nest cavity against threats. Calls, drumming, and hostile posturing are used to claim a territorial boundary.
Gilded Flicker perching on a branch
Gilded flickers are a non-migratory species, remaining in the same territories all year round with no significant annual movement patterns noted before or after breeding.
Gilded flickers are resident in the southwestern corner of the US and their range spreads across the border into Baja California and northwestern Mexico. They are year-round residents found, mainly in Arizona, but also present in the southeastern region of California and southern border areas of Nevada.
Gilded Flicker perching on a dead branch in the desert
Desert landscapes with dense clusters of tall, succulent plants, especially giant saguaro, are key to attracting gilded flickers. Remote locations far from human habitation and intervention are preferred.
Trees are not the most common nesting choices for gilded flickers, which prefer to hollow out nesting chambers in desert plants, in particular giant saguaro and Mexican cardon cacti. Occasionally deciduous trees in watersheds may be used when no alternative sites are available.
Gilded flickers’ main nesting spots are in giant saguaro and Mexican giant cardon cacti. Trees are rarely used, except when no suitable cacti are available. Nest cavities may be occasionally excavated in cottonwood and willow trees, but any damage is not usually extensive.
Gilded flickers feed primarily on insects and due to their preferred habitat being far from human habitation, they are unlikely to visit a backyard feeder.
Northern and gilded flickers are similar in many ways, including appearance and behavior. As their name suggests, northern flickers have a more northerly distribution range, that extends across most of Canada and the entire United States. There is some overlap in the southwest with the range of gilded flickers, and occasionally hybridization between the two occurs.
Northern flickers are larger and heavier than gilded flickers and are more widely studied. The two species are fairly similar in coloring, although the yellow-shafted northern flicker has a gray cap with a red patch on the rear of the head, and a black moustache stripe, while the red-shafted group northern flickers have a brownish cap and darker gray cheeks than the gilded flicker.
Gila woodpeckers are significantly smaller than gilded flickers, and their plumage is quite different, featuring mainly black and white barring compared to the light and dark browns of a gilded flicker. Gila woodpeckers also have an unmarked gray-white face and males have a small red cap.
Both inhabit the same desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, but telling the two species apart shouldn’t be too difficult.
29cm to 30cm
100g to 110g
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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