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Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus

Length: 12.5 to 14 inches Wingspan: 19 to 21 inches Seasonality: All Seasons
ID Keys: Dependant on form, with black or red mustache, brownish back with black bars, buffy belly with spots

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratusThe Northern Flicker is a somewhat unique North American Woodpecker with an affinity for ants. Unlike most woodpeckers, they spend much of their time on the ground foraging for ants and other prey items. Two color forms occur, the yellow-shafted and the red-shafted.  The two forms have similar bodies but different color patterns on the head.  The red-shafted is generally found in the western half of the U.S., while the yellow-shafted is generally found in the eastern half.  There is a broad zone, including South Dakota, where interbreeding between the two forms create a wide variety of intermediates. 

The difference between the yellow-shafted and red-shafted morphs of the Northern Flicker are quite apparent when they take flight, with the yellow underwings present on the yellow-shafted and a deep salmon-pink underwing on the red-shafted. Differences in the head pattern are also apparent, as follows (See below for comparison photos of differences between the color morphs)


Can be found in almost any habitat with trees, but tends to avoid dense unbroken forest. 


Mostly insects, especially ants.  Also eats fruits and berries, especially in the winter, and occasionally seeds and nuts. 


Does much of its foraging on the ground, often in pursuit of its favorite prey, ants.  Will also forage in foliage and on branches, and will occasionally fly out to capture insects in mid-air. 


Late May through mid-July in South Dakota. Northern Flickers are cavity nesters.  The will excavate a cavity in a tree trunk or large branch of a tree, usually a diseased or dead tree where excavation is easier. The cavity is about 12 to 18 inches deep with only wood chips at the bottom for the nesting platform. The female lays between 4 and 10 eggs, with both the male and female helping to incubate them. The young hatch after 12-14 days, not fledging from the nest until 21-28 days after hatching.


The short call of a Northern Flicker is a sharp kyeer. A longer rapid series of notes is also often given.  They also will drum like other woodpecker species.


Northern Flickers are considered permanent residents in much of their range. While some birds may indeed be resident, the presence of Northern Flickers in many locations in the US is based on a southern movement of many birds in the fall, with summer resident birds replaced by birds moving southward from further north. Northern Flickers may be found in South Dakota in any season, but they are much less common in winter than during the summer months.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Northern Flicker sightings

Similar Species:

 Generally distinctive if seen well in South Dakota, with plumage patterns (and behavior) that distinguish it from other woodpecker species in the state. Inside the state there's perhaps one species they may be confused with (if not seen well), while there are multiple species outside of South Dakota that may sometimes pose an ID challenge:

Red-bellied Woodpecker 2 - Melanerpes carolinus Gilded Flicker - Colaptes chrysoides Gilded Flicker - Colaptes chrysoides Gila Woodpecker - Melanerpes uropygialis
Red-bellied Woodpecker Gilded Flicker Gilded Flicker Gila Woodpecker

Bird Feeders:

Will attend feeders for suet, nuts, and fruits.


Northern Flickers will use appropriately sized nest boxes, preferably with a hole about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Click here for instructions on building an appropriately sized nest box for a Northern Flicker.

Conservation Status:

Indications are that Northern Flickers have declined in recent decades, likely in response to competition for nesting cavities with European Starlings. However, they are still found across a very broad geographic area in North America, and are common in parts of their range. The IUCN considers the Northern Flicker to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

October 2016 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Northern Flicker photos.

Audio File Credits:

Differences between Yellow- and Red-shafted Northern Flicker Plumages:

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus - Yellow-shafted Male Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus - Yellow-shafted female Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus - Red-shafted male Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus - Red-shafted female
Yellow-shafted Male:
Brownish face and throat
Black "mustache"
Red spot on nape
Yellow-shafted Female:
Brownish face and throat
No "mustache"
Red spot on nape
Red-shafted Male:
Grayish face and throat
Red "mustache"
No spot on nape
Red-shafted female:
Grayish face and throat
No "mustache"
No spot on nape


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common summer resident.  Uncommon winter resident.

Additional Northern Flicker Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Northern Flicker 1 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 3 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 3 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 4 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 5 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 6 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 7 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 8 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 9 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 10 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 11 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 12 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 13 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 14 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 15 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 16 - Colaptes auratusNorthern Flicker 17 - Colaptes auratus