News & Features

Northern Flicker – Red-shafted, Yellow-shafted, Intergrades – Which Do You Have?

The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a common bird in many areas of the Pacific Northwest. They visit yards and feeders and are visually striking. In the wild, flickers can be seen most commonly around standing trees that are dead or dying. Flicker use these ‘snags’ for feeding on tree-dwelling and wood-boring insects and also for excavating nest sites. Additionally, flickers may feed on the ground, searching for ants and beetle larvae.

Northern Flickers have two subspecies: the Red-shafted Flicker (C. a. cafer) of western North America and the Yellow-shafted Flicker (C. a. auratus) of the east and far north. Their ranges are roughly divided by the Rocky Mountains except in the northern boreal forest, where the yellow-shafted range extends west across most of Alaska. There is a wide area of overlap where the two subspecies interbreed extensively. Here in the Pacific Northwest we are fortunate to have both subspecies, as well as intergrades between the two. The Red-shafted Flicker is the most common and expected subspecies, but intergrades can also be common at times, mainly during the fall, winter, and spring. Apparently ‘pure’ Yellow-shafted Flickers are rare but should be looked for and occur annually.

Why should eBirders bother to report flickers by race (i.e., subspecies) or intergrade? There is scientific and conservation value, as we can help monitor the status and movement patterns of the northern populations by tracking intergrades and pure Yellow-shafted flickers. Flickers are fun to observe closely and, since they tend to be conspicuous, it is possible to get good looks at this striking bird.

As of 21 Jan 2015 there were 63 unique, approved reports of Yellow-shafted Flickers entered in eBird in Washington and 119 from Oregon. Most of these are from September through April; one observation was noted in May and one in August. While there aren’t any records of Yellow-shafted Flickers during June or July, there are a few reports of intergrades during these months throughout the northwest.

Check out the current range maps for the three flicker taxa at the following links!

Red-shafted Flickers:
http://tinyurl.com/mvdewv7

Intergrade Flickers:
http://tinyurl.com/naujgg4

Yellow-shafted Flickers:
http://tinyurl.com/nbv68u9

How to report flickers in eBird
Many flickers are not seen well enough to determine which category they fall in and thus should be reported simply as “Northern Flicker.” This would include birds that are only heard or seen at a distance, as well as most birds that are seen flight, even if the color of the underwings is seen.

The most obvious difference between Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted Flickers is the color of their underwings. However, to report a Northern Flicker subspecies in eBird, it is important to examine the face, malar, nape, and the color of the shafts (see Table 1 below). To be a verified record, a report of a Yellow-shafted Flicker needs to include documentation that most or all of these characters were seen well in the field (see Table 2 below). Also, See the images below illustrating these features. Take special note of Image 3 — This bird was first seen in flight when the yellow underwings were noted. It was suspected of being a Yellow-shafted since the malar looked very dark, but with a better view the observer realized it was dark red so the bird actually identifies as an intergrade.

Table 1. Features that separate Red-shafted Flicker from Yellow-shafted Flicker

 

NOFL ID #1 R Merrill 72dpi

Image 1.  Male Red-shafted Flicker – gray face, clean gray nape, red shafts, and red malar. April 2010, King County, WA. Photo by Ryan Merrill.

 

NOFL ID #2 R Merrill 72dpi

Image 2. A male Yellow-shafted Flicker showing brown face, red nape crescent, yellow shafts, and black malar. November 2012, Whatcom County, WA. Photo by Ryan Merrill.

 

NOFL ID #3 R Merrill 72dpi

Image 3. A male intergrade flicker showing brown face, red nape crescent, and yellow shafts as in Yellow-shafted, but a red malar as in Red-shafted. October 2008, Pacific County, WA. Photo by Ryan Merrill.

Table 2. Accepted Yellow-shafted Flicker observations by month in Washington (WA) and Oregon (OR), as of January 2015

NOFL ID Table 2. 72dpijpg

Resources

Wiebe, Karen L. and William S. Moore. 2008. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.ezproxy.spl.org:2048/bna/species/166a

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Living with Wildlife: Northern Flickers. http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/woodpeckers.html (this web page has additional references at the bottom of the page).