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The Drum Role of a Northern Flicker


I was in my basement the other day when I heard a drumming sound on my chimney. It was more rapid than the cadence of a drum corps snare drum warming up prior to a performance. I knew it must be spring -- the flickers are back in town!

The first time that I encountered this curious drum roll, I had no idea of what was going on. I ran outside to look at my roof and there on top of my chimney was a male flicker calling out proudly and signaling to all that he was there and he was ready to breed. Since that time, I have seen the flickers dueling it out between the street lamps. I have observed flickers choosing a backyard barbeque to make their drumming sound echo through the neighborhood, and I have even seen one find the sweet spot on the gable of a house. The entire attic became one giant Taiko drum.

The one pictured above has discovered the metal flashing around the grocery store as a perfect place to announce his presence.

This drumming behavior is very important: the male showing his stuff hopes to be the chosen one when the female makes her choice. While many of the breeding pairs of flickers are monogamous, more than 5% of the females may be involved in a polyandrous relationship leaving eggs in more than one nest for a male to look after. It is assumed that this leads to increased breeding success.

Flickers are primarily insect eaters. They find ants and beetles and can sometimes be seen poking at the ground, going after insect larvae in the soil. On a farm they apparently don't mind eating the insects found in a cow patty. A portion of their diet also includes fruit, seeds and berries.

The Northern Flicker overlaps in its range with at least three additional sub species. This is of interest both to birders and biologists. They represent an example of how difficult it is to define a species by the traditional species concept. Genomic studies are now being used to determine both the amount of interbreeding as well as the mating strategies of these birds. I look forward to seeing more papers coming out of research projects conducted in northern British Columbia and beyond.

Overlapping and hybridizing flickers
  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
  • Yellow-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus auratus)
  • Red-shafted Flicker (Colaptes auratus cafer)
  • Boreal Flicker (Colaptes auratus luteus)
It is great to see the Northern Flicker adapting so well to city living. While they are abundant throughout North America, their numbers have been decreasing as a result of natural habitat loss and competition with the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

I hope they keep on drumming on my chimney. Not only is it entertaining and a sign of spring, it is also an indication of the strength of this biologically significant bird.

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The Drum Role of a Northern Flicker

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