Capitol Hill Aviary | Flickers empty Hill birdfeeders


northern flicker, originally uploaded by Matt Westervelt.

In the world of birds, late fall is a time of lean feeding options. Here on the Hill, this means an increase in action at backyard birdfeeders. One frequent feeder visitor is our neighborhood’s most common woodpecker: the northern flicker. Unlike smaller birds such as chickadees and juncos, flickers can demolish a feeder’s food stash alarmingly quickly—but it’s fun to watch them eat.


The northern flicker is brownish overall, with black bars on the back and black spots on the front. It has a dapper black crescent on the breast and red markings around the head and wings. (Some individuals, called yellow-shafted northern flickers, have yellow rather than red on the wings.) In the wild, flickers forage both on trees and on the ground, locating prey by sight or sound.

When you see a flicker on a feeder, take the opportunity to observe its anatomy up close. Like many other woodpeckers, flickers have thick tails that they use for extra support as they maneuver their bodies along tree trunks. These tails also come in handy as the birds hang on birdfeeders—especially feeders that swing and spin

If you can get close while a flicker eats, you may see flashes of its exceptionally long tongue. This tongue is barbed and sticky, perfect for capturing insects—and pretty effective at demolishing suet cakes, too. The flicker’s skull is specially shaped so its tongue, when not in use, can furl around the eye socket and the back of the head. The shape of the flicker’s skull also provides a cushioning effect so the bird’s brain doesn’t get damaged during drumming.

Flickers are common in backyards and parks throughout the neighborhood. Yellow-shafted northern flickers are relatively uncommon in our region, but I have occasionally spotted them at the Washington Park Arboretum.

Interested in learning more?

Previous Aviary Posts

Melissa Koosmann is a freelance writer and resident of Capitol Hill. She writes about education, culture, and nature — and, sometimes, birds for CHS.

7 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Aviary | Flickers empty Hill birdfeeders

  1. We’ve been seeing them in our yard all the time, since early summer. There seems to be a family of 3 living in the area of 18th and Spring. They love to pick over the lawn for bugs along with the flocks of starlings, which makes them look like some sort of chaperone. Their feathers are amazingly beautiful! :-)

    Cool article, thanks!

    (my not-great photo of the Flickr in the neighborhood in February, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mookmonkey/5489586325/in/photos )

  2. I am about 3 1/2 blocks from Volunteer park, and have had a yellow shafted flicker in our backyard. We mostly have the greedy red shafted, but I love them!