Written By Joshua VanBrakle.

Posted on February 24th, 2019.

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If a woodpecker pecks on the ground instead of wood, is it still a woodpecker? Isn’t it a ground-pecker?

One of the downsides of being the family “nature guy” is that whenever someone has an identification question, they come to me—whether I have any idea what it is or not. Worse, usually their descriptions are so odd that even if I would recognize the critter on sight, I can’t make anything of what the person is telling me.

So you’ll understand if I was a bit nervous when my mother came to me and said, “Hey Josh, I saw this bird doing something really weird! Do you know what it was?”

Well, let’s give it a shot. “What did you see?”

“It was a woodpecker, or at least it looked like one. But it wasn’t pounding into trees. It was banging its head over and over into the ground!”

Hey, there’s an exception to every rule. Because in this case, that description was all I needed. As it so happened, I’d taken a picture of the same kind of bird earlier that week. I quickly brought it up on my computer.

“Did it look like that?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s it! What is that?”

Meet the northern flicker.

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Northern flickers feed on insects underground rather than in trees like other woodpeckers.

Northern flickers aren’t your typical woodpeckers. Most woodpeckers feed by—what else?—pecking wood. They drill into dead or decaying wood to find the insects living inside it.

Not northern flickers. They prefer ants, beetles, and larvae for food, and many of those live underground. So rather than poke into wood, flickers jab their thin beaks into the earth to pull up tasty bugs.

That said, northern flickers are true woodpeckers. They still excavate cavities in trees, which they use for nesting. That makes them great to have around, because lots of other, non-woodpecker animals depend on woodpecker cavities to build their homes in.

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Northern flickers and other woodpeckers are great wildlife to have around, because the cavities they excavate in trees provide nesting spots for many other birds and animals.

Fortunately, flickers are pretty common. They especially like open areas near trees like woodland edges, parks, and even suburban lawns. If you want to draw some in, put out a suet feeder. It will attract both flickers and most other woodpecker species.

Flickers live year-round across North America, but they look different depending on where you go. The biggest difference are the feathers on the undersides of the wings and tail. Here in the East, those feathers are bright, sun yellow. But if you go out west, they’re a bold red. You probably won’t see those feathers when the bird’s just sitting somewhere, but watch for it to take flight. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with a burst of color.


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