Category Archives: northern flicker saga

Egg-secution

Well, it’s another year without a successful Northern Flicker brood so I’ve turned off the nest cam stream. I’m not sure what went wrong. As I posted, the Northern Flicker pair laid their first egg on June 13th. A mid-June nest attempt is late, but from what I’ve read, flickers will nest anytime between March and June.

At first, things seemed to be going well. The female flicker did skip a day laying after the first egg, which can happen when there’s bad weather (usually if it’s cold and/or rainy/snowy, which wasn’t the case here), but then she reliably laid another 3 eggs over the next 3 mornings. Below is a video of her laying the second egg. The interesting thing with this female is that it was so obvious when she was laying her eggs. With the successful pair from 2016, I could only tell an egg had been laid when she got up off of them.

Then, the same day the female laid her 4th egg, the male ended up crushing 3 of the 4 eggs. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or if he was just clumsy. He certainly seemed not to be taking too much care jumping into the box! But he was also very vigilant about keeping the eggs moving rather than sitting in one spot, which keeps them viable. After the eggs were destroyed, I saw him eat bits of the remaining shells. Birds sometimes eat their eggs if they have a vitamin deficiency. Is this a clue to what happened?

After the big mishap, the female laid a new second egg, but later that same day either she or the male destroyed that egg and the remaining egg. Here’s video of one of the flickers removing the final egg after the female leaves the box.

I have a couple of hypotheses about why the birds destroyed/removed the eggs, but nothing solid. Perhaps it was too late and too hot in the season for the eggs to be viable, which the birds recognized. Or maybe one or both of the birds were sick or too inexperienced to be fit parents. Whatever the reason, there are no new flicker babies this year.

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Egg-cellent

The past week, the female Northern Flicker has been hanging out in and around the flicker box regularly. Since female birds of many (most?) bird species are the ones to choose the nesting spot, this was a great sign. Well, what do my eyes see this morning but a tiny little egg in the bottom of the box!

Northern Flickers nest anytime between March and June so this pair is a little on the later end of nesting, but still within the usual time frame. I have no concrete idea why they are nesting so late, but it’s possible it could have something to do with pressure from European Starlings or maybe their previous nest attempt earlier in the season failed. Whatever the reason, hopefully, despite the hot temperatures we’ve been getting, and and will no doubt continue to see moving into full-bore summer, the nest will do all right.

Now that the nesting has truly started, I’m starting a new nest attempt at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch site. NestWatch is a great resource for researchers to learn more about breeding birds from citizen science data. Citizen science is immeasurably important because it would be impossible for scientists to collect as much data as the average person can provide on their own.

If you find a nest this season, you can record it on NestWatch too. Just remember to follow the nestwatching code of conduct to make sure you’re not doing any harm to the birds.

Dark Star(ling)

In tandem with my Red-breasted Nuthatch box, I’ve been running my Northern Flicker box cam again this year. Because Youtube isn’t set up to do more than one livestream per account, however, I’ve been running it on a separate account.

Early in the season there was a lot of activity at the flicker box. On one cold, snowy day there were even 2 male flickers fighting over a female who had taken shelter from the weather in the box. I watched the males try to grab the female by the beak and pull her out of the box, perhaps to mate?, then chase each other around and around the catalpa tree in my neighbor’s yard.

Then things quieted down and it seemed all the neighborhood flickers had found their mates and nesting spots. Recently though, a male flicker has returned to the box. It’s getting late in the season, but 2 years ago it was about this time when my last successful flicker pair laid their eggs, so it could happen again this year. He has a lady, which I was able to confirm after seeing them both fly from the box to a nearby tree and mate, so only time will tell.

I’m glad the male flicker returned to the box on Monday because on Sunday he was attacked by a European Starling that tried to steal the box.

WARNING: The following footage may be disturbing to watch. 

In the last few years, starlings have only shown up in my yard very early (generally February and March), but then move on. I don’t tend to hear or see them most of the year in my neighborhood. I think that’s why my flickers were successful 2 years ago; they nested later when starlings had already chosen their nesting spots. Perhaps this starling then was desperate for a nest cavity. Maybe that’s why he chose the ambush approach rather than trying to lure the flicker out of the box.

As I’ve mentioned before, starlings are an invasive species brought over from Britain. They co-evolved with the European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) and the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) and, as a result, have developed deadly weapons (sharp, dagger-like bills, long legs, and claws) and aggressive tactics, to compete for nest cavities with those woodpeckers since they’re unable to build their own.

Our native woodpeckers didn’t have to deal with nest predators like the starling when they evolved so they don’t have the killer instinct to protect their homes, but nesting later in the season may be an adaptation to dealing with the starlings, as has been postulated before.

So far so good on the starling front, though I remain cautious. I removed the nesting material the victorious starling placed into the box on Sunday (bits of native yarrow and blue flax) along with adding more woodchips and I haven’t seen or heard any starlings since.

More as it develops!

Bye Bye, Birdie

I am an empty nester. This past Monday, all 5 Northern Flicker chicks fledged. As I mentioned in my previous post, fledging means being fully feathered and having enough musculature built up for sustained flight. It’s not in the definition, but I suspect a part of fledging is also about attitude.

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Tensions were high on the day of fledging with a fight for dominance of the entry hole.

In the final few days, and certainly on the day of fledging, it seemed tensions were high between the chicks. There was a lot more pecking and wing buffeting and it seemed to be growing in intensity as they fought to monopolize the entry hole. As a sibling, I can understand wanting to have your own space after so much time being cooped up together in the same room!

Things finally came to a head when, after a scuffle with another chick, the first chick took the leap of faith out of the nestbox at 1:04pm MST. The other chicks were very quiet after that. Were they stunned that they were now 4 instead of 5?

About an hour and a half later, just a few minutes after I got home and sat down outside to watch, the second chick to fledge flew out of the box and a third chick took pride of place at the entrance. I didn’t witness much of the fledging of the first 2 chicks, but it was clear the third chick was debating the merits of staying in the box versus leaving. For an hour and a half I watched as the third chick stuck its head out of the box, occasionally bracing a foot on the little ledge as if to push off, only to retreat back into the box. This was punctuated by thin “kleers,” a miniature version of the adult Northern Flicker’s call.

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The female Northern Flicker feeds her chick one last time before it fledges. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I’ve read that birds hold off on feeding their young near fledging to encourage them to leave the nest, but this didn’t really appear to be the case here. The chick’s cries eventually caused both parents to arrive with food, which it gobbled down. It then continued trying to decide whether to leave until its siblings began calling from nearby in the neighbors’ yard. I could almost see it drawing confidence from them because shortly after 4:00pm MST, and not long after they began calling, it too leapt out of the box, flapping for freedom.

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The third Northern Flicker chick to fledge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It didn’t take nearly as long for chick #4 to leave the box. Instead of an hour and a half, it took roughly 40 minutes for it to decide to leave too. And that left one chick, most likely the youngest, though they were all about the same size by then and it was difficult to say who had hatched in what order. It seemed startled to suddenly be alone and began calling. Then, just 2 minutes after his/her sibling fledged, it too hopped to the entry hole and flew off.

When I cleaned out the box, I found a lot of poop and dust, but surprisingly no egg. Sometime in the last few days one of the parents must have carted it off. So, in a way, it too must’ve “fledged.”

While I’ll miss “my” chicks, I’ll always remember this summer fondly. I hope you enjoyed reading and/or watching their antics as much as I did.  Thus ends the Northern Flicker Saga.

 

A Tale of Tongues

The five Northern Flicker chicks are growing fast! Now fully feathered, they look like entirely different creatures than the long-necked, blind, pink things that hatched out just a few short weeks ago.

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The male Flicker feeds one of his chicks at the nestbox entrance. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Not only have their eyes opened and their feathers grown in, but their claws have developed and the chicks are getting big. That means they have to climb to the top of the box to get fed at the entry hole, which leads to furious fights involving wing flapping and head pecks to either hold onto or usurp the prized position. In between meals, they spend a lot of time wiggling their tongues around and licking the box and each other. I assume this is a way of exploring their surroundings, like a toddler shoving everything into his/her mouth in order to taste it.

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The Flicker chicks love exploring their box with their extremely long tongues. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Northern Flicker has the longest tongue of all North American birds at 4 or 5 inches long. This tongue wraps around inside its skull and can dart out 2 inches past the end of its bill. Flexible and sticky with a lightly barbed end, it’s the perfect implement for wriggling into tight crevices and lapping up ants, the flicker’s favorite food. Any ants that escape feedings are now quickly slurped up by these ever-hungry and watchful little chicks.

While I’ll be sad to see these little guys leave the nest, I’ll also be excited to watch them take their first flights. In fact, they could be fledging any day now. Northern Flickers generally fledge (develop wing muscles and feathers of sufficient strength to allow flight away from the nest) between 25 and 28 days after hatching so the 3 older chicks could fledge as early as this weekend. Stay tuned!

 

Nipping it in the Butt

The Northern Flicker family appears to be doing well. The first 3 chicks hatched out on June 1, the 4th on June 2, and the 5th on June 3. So far the 6th egg hasn’t hatched and I suspect it won’t since it’s been 14 days since it was laid and the parents don’t even seem to be incubating it much at all anymore. It’s probably a good thing, since it would be at a serious disadvantage against its much bigger siblings in trying to get food.

In watching these chicks I’ve come to the realization that song birds grow fast! At 6 days old, the 3 oldest chicks are easy 3 times the size they were when they hatched out. Of course, they have to grow fast since many birds migrate and they only have a short amount of time to put on weight and build strong enough feathers to help them on their journey. While Northern Flickers aren’t migratory, at least not where I live, they also have a short window to mature and become independent before the winter months.

Mom and dad have been sharing feeding and brooding duties over the last week. While it’s difficult to tell what’s on the menu, a Northern Flicker’s diet is primarily made up of ants (that’s one good reason to leave that ant colony in your backyard alone instead of dousing it with toxic chemicals). As soon as mom or dad’s shadow appears at the nestbox’s entry hole, the chicks perk up and start loudly chittering. It’s been said that this chittering sound is meant to imitate the sound of a hive of bees in order to deter predators from raiding the cavity.

Nipping it in the butt
The female Northern Flicker nips at the cloaca of one of her chicks to prod the chick to defecate. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One interesting thing I had never seen before setting up this bird cam occurs shortly after the chicks have been fed. The parent pokes or nips at the chicks, especially their hindquarters. It took me a bit to realize that this nipping was meant to prod the chicks to defecate. Because Northern Flickers and other cavity nesters live in an enclosed space and the chicks can’t easily relieve themselves over the side of the nest, the cavity would soon be overwhelmed by feces if there wasn’t a way to dispose of them. Therefore, the parents will solicit the chicks’ feces and then either consume the fecal packet or fly it away from the nest.

That’s one way of nipping the cleanliness problem in the butt…er, bud!

 

Oh Baby!

When I tuned into the Northern Flicker stream this morning, I was in for a big surprise: the first chick had just hatched not an hour before. Two more chicks hatched in quick succession and now there are 3 squirming pink, rubbery babies in the box!

Feedingtime
The female Northern Flicker feeds her chicks. Note the white egg tooth on the chick she is currently feeding. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It seems a little early for the chicks to have hatched given that the last egg was laid on May 23rd and, on average, it takes 11-12 days to incubate, but that IS an average after all. I was expecting the first chick on Friday, but what a way to get through the middle of the week!

The most prominent feature of the new chicks is the big white egg tooth on their beaks. The egg tooth is a hard structure that allows the chick to break through the shell of its egg since its beak and claws are pretty weak and ineffectual at this stage. Most birds and reptiles have an egg tooth, but it falls off or is reabsorbed by the animal soon after hatching.

There are still 3 eggs left to hatch in the nest, but I thought I saw a tiny hole or “pip” in one of them so there may be another chick already on the way!