Tag Archives: cavity nest

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.

fight
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.

untitled-0750
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.

untitled-0848
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.

untitled-0502
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.

tongue
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!

 

Bird’s Eye View

The first stirrings of spring are here and that means the Northern Flickers will be looking to choose mates and nest very soon. Just this past week I installed my birdcam to monitor whoever decides to nest in my Flicker box. Here’s the live feed:

And here’s a selection from the past couple days. At around 7:00, a male Northern Flicker checks out the box and begins “excavating” the wood shavings. He stays for 20 minutes or so:

I hope this year is more successful than the last! Updates to follow as the season progresses.

Little Bird House on the Prairie

Spring is once again in the air and so too is my northern flicker house. If you’ll remember, last year I hung my flicker box on the side of my house, but became frustrated by the European starlings that seemed to want to lay claim to the property. Determined to try again, I hung the original house (the one without the plexiglass shield) in the same spot a couple of weeks ago once I heard the first flicker drumming on someone’s gutter.

My northern flicker house from Coveside. Photo by Jamie Simo.
My northern flicker house from Coveside. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Well, now that it’s warmed up a bit and the snow is melting, there’s been lots of activity! While a mob of European starlings expressed interest in the box last week by dumping the woodchips all over the ground below it, their interest seems to have waned (fingers crossed). The last few days, a male flicker has been on and in the box for much of the day. Yesterday and today he’s spent most of his time inside the box pecking away at the entry hole (probably trying to replace the woodchips the starlings dumped). His efforts are occasionally punctuated by his usual cry, but he’s been a lot quieter today. That might be because he’s already attracted a lady. She was hanging around on the tree across from the box for awhile.

Male northern flicker. I've named him Flick. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male northern flicker. I’ve named him Flick. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Northern flickers are notoriously shy so I don’t have any really good pictures of them on the house. I had to skulk around really quietly to get the pictures I did manage to get, but I’m considering ways to get around that if they do decide to nest there. Maybe I’ll buy a trail camera so I can get pictures of them coming and going. By the way, I’ve decided to nickname them Beaky (female) and Flick (male). More as things develop!

UPDATE: Here’s a picture of Flick on the box:

Flick on my flicker house. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Flick on my flicker house. Photo by Jamie Simo.

House Hunting for Flickers

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.

Image
Male red-shafted northern flicker. Photo by JoanGeeAZ, AZ, Tucson, November 2008. Red-shafted flickers are found in the western United States.
Image
Female yellow-shafted northern flicker. Photo by Jamie Simo. Yellow-shafted flickers are found in the eastern United States.
Image
Two male yellow-shafted northern flickers dueling. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

Image
European starling in summer plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.