A flicker. Photo by Sandy Bacon.


“The flicker’s here!”
This is a common announcement in our home in wintertime, usually followed by, “Do you see it? . . . Wait, don’t move, you’ll scare it away!”
The Northern Flicker (Colpates auratus), a type of woodpecker, is a beautiful bird: grayish brown with fine detailing in black and white on its breast and red on its face, plus a long chisel-like bill. Unlike other woodpeckers native to this area, its wings flash yellow wen in flight. The flicker’s name comes from one of the sounds it makes, “Flicka flicka flicka!” I never really paid much attention to the species that visited our feeder until my bird-enthusiast parents pointed out the flicker that visited regularly. Until then, my experience of woodpeckers was limited to Woody, the maniacally-laughing classic cartoon.
The woodpecker is a member of the family Picidae, which is present in nearly every region around the globe, with the exception of the poles, as well as Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Madagascar. There are seven different species that breed in Massachusetts: the Northern Flicker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and five additional woodpeckers each differentiated by a descriptor relating to its feathers: Downy, Hairy, Pileated, Red-bellied, and Red-headed.
Our local woodpeckers thrive in the forest, typically making the trunks and branches of trees their homes. They inhabit all varieties of woodlands – coniferous, deciduous, mixed – as well as forested swamps, orchards, and open spaces such a golf courses, cemeteries, city parks and suburban yards. They prefer areas with mature trees with trunks that are large in diameter.
The woodpecker is a small-to-medium sized bird, measuring from 7-15 inches in length. Its primary color is a pattern of brown, black and white. Males of all seven varieties have bright red facial markings, crowns or crests.
The legs of the woodpecker are short and strong. Sharp claws – two pointing forward and two pointing backward — ensure a strong grip on tree limbs and trunks. Because of these adaptations, a woodpecker can walk vertically up a tree! Stiff, pointed tail feathers – protruding at just the right angle to serve as a balance prop – are another feature that make the woodpecker well-suited to life in the trees.
The bill of a woodpecker is very strong – strong enough to withstand lifetime of pecking. The woodpecker’s primary source of sustenance is insects. While on the hunt for its next meal, it will peck at a tree and pull off the bark. Some suspect that the woodpecker may actually hear the bugs in the bark before it begins mining for them. Beetles, ants, grubs, termites, spiders, and caterpillars are all on the menu. A long, barbed, sticky tongue provides an additional tool for extracting them. The woodpecker will also eat sap, berries, nuts and seeds.
One might wonder how such a small head and neck could withstand a lifetime of repeated impact. The woodpecker is well-adapted to pecking. Its brain is small, and positioned in such as way as the impact is minimized. Its eyes and nostrils also have protective mechanisms built in. And its neck is very strong. All of that pecking actually helps to keep the bill sharp!
The woodpecker not only uses its bill for foraging, but for communication as well. In the spring, you may hear a woodpecker drumming on a tree, a wooden structure, or even a metal object like a gutter or downspout, in order to attract a mate.
Pecking is also essential for the excavation of a new home. The woodpecker roosts and nests in the small holes that it bores into trees, usually a new one each year. It will carve out an entrance ranging from 1.25 to 4.5 inches, then line the bottom of the nest with the resulting woodchips. The female lays around 4 to 6 eggs, which are incubated for 11-18 days, a responsibility shared by both members of a mating pair. Feeding is a family affair as well. After 3-4 weeks, the fledglings are ready to leave the nest.
Woodpeckers usually travel in pairs, but they’re not known to flock. Most of our local woodpeckers live here year-round, but the flicker and the sapsucker are migratory.
The flickers here at our house are probably attracted by the suet we hang. They will also forage on the ground for insects, although I suspect that our resident turkey flock may have already mined that territory for all it’s worth!
Unfortunately, woodpeckers can do serious damage. They come by their name honestly. We’ve had a number of shingles replaced on the sides of our house, due to holes pecked by our feathered friends. Luckily, our current flicker in residence has taken on a different project – enlarging the entrance to one of our bird houses.
If you have a woodpecker problem, Mass Wildlife offers a few recommendations for how to deal with it. Noise will often drive a woodpecker away, so you can yell or clap at it, or play loud music from an open window. Spraying it with a hose will also help, but you have to be consistent. Woodpeckers are attracted to dark and/or natural-stained wood, but they don’t seem to like shiny stuff all that much. Mass Wildlife says to hang high-reflective Mylar tape over an area frequented by woodpeckers, . . . or if that’s too high tech, even aluminum pie plates can help. There are also helium-filled Mylar balloons with owl-like eyes that can help scare them off – just be sure not to hang them near power lines. You can also use plastic sheeting or fruit netting.
If you’re interested in birds, check out this week’s Water Watch Lecture Series, “Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock,” Wednesday, February 3rd at 7:30pm at the South Shore Natural Science Center. For more information, visit
by Kezia Bacon
January 2016
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 19 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit