Category Archives: northern flicker saga

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.

 

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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.

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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!

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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!

New Beau and New Life

Things have been busy in Flickerdom the last few weeks. The last I posted, the previous male had disappeared and the female had decided to start over again with a new male. This is very obviously not the same male because he’s what’s known as an “intergrade.”

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The male Northern Flicker “Mr. Gold” showing off his yellow wing linings. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In the Eastern U.S. all Northern Flickers are yellow-shafted, meaning they have yellow wing and tail linings. Eastern males also have black mustache stripes and both sexes have a red crescent on the nape of the neck. Their faces are brown with a grey crown. In the west, however, Northern Flickers are red-shafted, meaning they have red wing and tail linings. The Western male’s mustache is red. Neither sex has a red nape crescent and their faces are grey with a brown crown.

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The female Northern Flicker showing off the more typical red wing linings of the western subspecies. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Here in the eastern half of Colorado, yellow-shafted and red-shafted Flickers tend to mingle and interbreed, so while most Northern Flickers look like the red-shafted subspecies, you can get some that display traits of both subspecies. This new male, whom I’ve been thinking of as Mr. Gold, has a red mustache and no nape crescent like a red-shafted, but he has very conspicuous yellow linings to wings and tail.

The female and this new male have been mating pretty regularly and just this morning she laid her fifth egg. The male has been keeping the eggs company all night and both parents have been trading off egg duty during the day, though the male has been spending most of the time in the box. He’s a pretty industrious fellow. Maybe to stave off boredom, he’s been pecking away at the sides of the box to add new wood chips to the floor.

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The male Flicker pecking away at the inside of the box to produce more wood chips for the nest. Photo by Jamie Simo.

As I mentioned previously, Northern Flickers will lay between 6 and 8 eggs on average. They can also lay many more, however, because they’re “indeterminate layers.” This means that if their eggs are destroyed or removed, the female will keep laying for an “indeterminate” period of time. So I guess we’ll just have to see how many this pair ends up with!

The Start of a New Beginning?

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Northern Flicker pair who had been hanging around my box finally got down to laying eggs on April 30th. Barring a mishap when the male accidentally jumped into the box and crushed the second egg, things seemed to be going okay for a couple days. Then the male suddenly stopped coming around.

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A female Northern Flicker disposes of the previously laid eggs. Is this the female who laid them or a new female? Photo by Jamie Simo.

Though the female gamely laid another few eggs for a final total of 4, her calls never induced her missing mate to return. This is problematic because the male Flicker is the one who is the most attentive, brooding the eggs the most, especially at night. I noticed the female coming to the nest maybe twice a day, once in the morning and once later in the afternoon, but in between the eggs went unprotected.

In the interim, I noticed a Starling enter the box at least once. It appeared alone, but seemed excited to find the cavity unminded. While it pushed around the eggs a bit the time I saw it, I was relieved that it didn’t try to pierce them or chuck them from the box.

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One of the Northern Flicker eggs unceremoniously tossed out of the box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

This morning, however, a Flicker, perhaps the previous female or a new female seemed to come to a decision to end the nesting attempt. Northern Flickers will re-bond with a new mate if their old one dies or disappears, so it’s quite possible this is the same female who laid the eggs and she’s clearing out for a new brood with another partner. One by one she took the eggs up in her bill and carried them off, or, as in the case with one egg, unceremoniously tossed it out of the box to splatter on my deck.

After the eggs were disposed of, a male Flicker was definitely in the nest cavity probing at the bottom of the box. The two have been in and out of the box drumming and calling for most of the day so I can only hope this is the start of a new beginning and not the end.

I’ll be giving out more updates as they occur.

Cue the Egg Puns

The last few days it’s been pretty miserable weather-wise. With it so cold and wet, the male Northern Flicker has spent a lot of time just huddled down in the nestbox sleeping. While this is undeniably cute, I’ve been looking forward to little flicker babies for so long, I was starting to sound like a grandmother. My husband can attest to this as I spoke to the screen saying: “It’s a nesting box not a roosting box. Start laying eggs!” Well, maybe they listened. This morning when I checked in on the box I was astonished to see a tiny, perfect egg on the floor of the box.

Later, when I checked again, I saw a second egg nestled in the wood chips next to the first. Because flickers, like most other birds, lay one egg a day, usually in the morning, this means that the first egg was laid yesterday. If all goes well, there could be a third egg in the box by this time tomorrow afternoon.

Although it’s hard to tell colors with any great clarity in the darkened nest box, the eggs appear a little pink. According to Birds of North America online, this is because the shell is thin and the color of the yolk shines through. In a few days, the eggs will take on their usual glossy white color.

Northern Flickers are indeterminate layers so if something happens to the eggs, they’ll keep laying. Normally, though, they’ll lay an average of 6 to 8 eggs, which they’ll incubate for 11 to 12 days. Both male and female flickers incubate, with the male doing the majority of the work, including brooding the eggs at night.

I’m excited to see how many eggs this pair will lay and I’ll be counting down the days to hatching!