My fiance and I moved to Colorado in February of this year and by March we were lucky enough to move into our very first house. We weren’t the only ones doing some home shopping though. One of my favorite things about spring is the mating display of the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), a large, handsome woodpecker with a black collar and a spotted breast. In early spring, flickers descend on many suburban neighborhoods across the lower 48, particularly those with big, well-established trees.
Males fill the air with their “wicka wicka” cries as they drum their bills repeatedly against the trees in hopes of attracting a mate. To give themselves a greater edge in their wooing, some flicker males have adapted to take advantage of the metal guttering on our houses, using it like a kind of megaphone to announce their fitness even farther afield. If another male dares to challenge him, the two (or sometimes more!) males will chase each other up, down, and around tree limbs and trunks, bobbing their heads at each other and posturing.
Even before we’d unpacked all of our boxes, I decided I wanted to extend an open invitation for a flicker family to move into our yard. Northern flickers are cavity dwellers and so will readily use birdhouses. There are a number of birdhouses designed especially for northern flickers and I ended up buying one designed by Coveside. One of the cool things about that birdhouse is that it comes with a bag of wood chips. When flickers excavate a cavity, they leave wood chips in to line their nests. According to articles, such as this one by Karen Wiebe, flickers prefer south-facing nesting cavities because they’re less energetically expensive to keep eggs warm, so I hung the bird house on the back of my house. Then I waited.
It took about a week before a male flicker came calling. He pushed some of the wood chips out of the house and would either cling to the birdhouse’s opening and drum on its front or sit in the house with his head poking out, calling out in advertisement of his posh new penthouse apartment. I never saw them together, but eventually I did see a female also show interest in the house. Unfortunately, some European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) also put a bid up on the house.
Starlings, named for the star field like splotches of white they bear in the non-breeding season, were most likely first brought to North America by someone who wanted to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare into the United States. As generalists, they’ve since flourished in our cities and suburbs where they often out-compete native birds due to their aggressiveness (ironically, their numbers are actually declining in their native range within the UK). In fact, despite being bigger and more powerful than the starling, there have been many reported incidences of flickers being pinned in birdhouses by starlings who then proceed to stab the woodpeckers with their dagger-like beaks. With that in mind, I watched nervously as a trio of starlings took up residence in a tree across from the flicker house.
One of the starlings would flap its wings and call loudly for a mate. Then he’d wait until the flickers were gone and fly over to the house, proceeding to nose most of the wood chips from the box. Nothing I did could deter him short of taking the house down, which I did for short periods before one of the flickers would come back, prompting me to replace the house and start the cycle all over again.
I finally decided to buy Coveside’s starling-proof flicker house. This house is slanted with a plexiglass shield covering the opening to the house. The reasoning behind this design is so the flicker can cling to the house and climb into the house under the plexiglass while the starlings would be deterred. I don’t know whether the flickers would have eventually figured out the mechanism or not. After I witnessed a short tussle between the starling and one of the flickers, I never saw them at the house again. The starling, however, cheekily managed to climb into the box, despite it being off-limits and continued to push out wood chips until I admitted defeat and took the box down for good.
I haven’t seen any flickers in the neighborhood since probably early May now. I’m guessing most of them decided to find homes elsewhere to raise their chicks, somewhere far from those bully birds. Next spring I’ll welcome them back and try again to entice them to stay awhile.