A loud, rapid drumming emanated from hillside woodlands in the Cienega Canyon Picnic Area. “Northern Flicker,” I signaled to my friend Barbara. We had hiked into the area prior to its being opened for the season, and the drumming was one of the persistent sounds that accompanied the rattle of the Steller’s Jays.
Loud and fast rat-a-tat-tat sounds were heard throughout the bosque or mountain areas of central New Mexico during mid-March through early April as Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers communicated with prospective mates and defended potential nest trees. At times, the rapid drumming was accompanied by what is termed the ‘long call’, which sounds like an anguished distress signal.
Both male and female Northern Flickers produce the pneumatic, drill-like drumming sound by rapidly and sharply beating the tip of its bill on an object that gives off a loud sound, usually a dead tree limb or branch,
and sometimes a metal surface. A friend recently described the incessant drumming on the metal roof of their cabin in southern Colorado. Early one spring, our group of bird count volunteers had to laugh at a Northern Flicker’s determined drumming on the top of a light cover.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a “wicka dance” where two males interacted to attract the attention of a nearby female. While perched on top of the shade shelter at the Valle de Oro NWR, the males bobbed and gyrated their bills. The female flew in from the adjacent bosque, landed briefly, and then flew off with one of the males – abandoning the remaining male.
I have not heard the rapid drumming or long-calling for the past week, and today I only heard two flicker vocalizations as I walked through the bosque – a signal that the nesting season is about to begin. While things have settled down in the bosque where the non-migratory Northern Flickers pairs are settling down to the business of nest tree selection and preparation, elevational migratory flicker’s territorial behavior in the Sandia Mountains continues.
It is not known whether it is the male or female that makes the final nest tree selection – usually a dead or diseased tree trunk that can be excavated easily. While Northern Flickers do sometimes reuse their cavities, they often work together to hollow out a cavity – creating a fairly round hole over a period of 10 to 12 days. When you walk through the woods and see round holes – usually facing east or southeast, they will have been made by a pair of Northern Flickers.
These holes are often used in subsequent years by Western Screech Owls
or American Kestrels where their territories overlap. Other species of woodpecker are not near as particular about the shape of their cavities.
Both male and female participate in incubating, as well as feeding the newly hatched young. While I have not heard a parent make any sound as it flies towards the nest, the young must detect the wingbeat and start begging calls from deep within the cavity.
As the fledglings grow, they will stick their heads out as a parent approaches.
By mid-July, they are ready to venture out on their own and parents no longer respond to begging for food. This bright-eyed, inquisitive youngster was observed at the Valles Calder National Preserve towards the end of July.
Different from other woodpeckers that extract insects from behind tree bark, the Northern Flicker forages for insects on the ground, with the food of choice being ants or ant larvae. Bill, one of the volunteers who leads bird walks at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, shared an interesting story he learned from Sondra Williams, long-time volunteer and expert on bird behavior. “Look for triangular-shaped markings on the ground,” he stated. “That is the kind of mark that the bill of the Northern Flicker makes when it forages for insects.”
During the winter when ants are hibernating, they switch to seeds and berries, like this nimble male.
In central New Mexico Northern Flickers breed both at high elevations and in the bosque. While most of those that spend the summer in the mountains, migrate to the lowlands during the winter where they visit yards across Albuquerque,
occasionally they are reported high in the Sandia Mountains during the winter. I always look for one to visit my yard sometime in mid-October.
Nesting will begin soon and I look forward to the opportunity to discover a nesting hole and watching Northern Flicker parents feed their young.