Most of these articles were published in the Mariner Newspapers (Gatehouse Media) beginning in May 1996. They appeared -- and continue to appear -- at least once a month, courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association. For more info on NSRWA visit their website, www.nsrwa.org •
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Tuesday, March 8, 2016
The Northern Flicker
A flicker. Photo by Sandy Bacon.
This is a common
announcement in our home in wintertime, usually followed by, “Do you see it? .
. . Wait, don’t move, you’ll scare it away!”
The Northern Flicker
(Colpates auratus), a type of woodpecker, is a beautiful bird: grayish brown with
fine detailing in black and white on its breast and red on its face, plus a
long chisel-like bill. Unlike other woodpeckers native to this area, its wings
flash yellow wen in flight. The flicker’s name comes from one of the sounds it
makes, “Flicka flicka flicka!” I never really paid much attention to the species
that visited our feeder until my bird-enthusiast parents pointed out the
flicker that visited regularly. Until then, my experience of woodpeckers was
limited to Woody, the maniacally-laughing classic cartoon.
The woodpecker is a
member of the family Picidae, which is present in nearly every region around
the globe, with the exception of the poles, as well as Australia, New Zealand,
New Guinea and Madagascar. There are seven different species that breed in
Massachusetts: the Northern Flicker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and five
additional woodpeckers each differentiated by a descriptor relating to its
feathers: Downy, Hairy, Pileated, Red-bellied, and Red-headed.
woodpeckers thrive in the forest, typically making the trunks and branches of
trees their homes. They inhabit all varieties of woodlands – coniferous,
deciduous, mixed – as well as forested swamps, orchards, and open spaces such a
golf courses, cemeteries, city parks and suburban yards. They prefer areas with
mature trees with trunks that are large in diameter.
The woodpecker is a
small-to-medium sized bird, measuring from 7-15 inches in length. Its primary
color is a pattern of brown, black and white. Males of all seven varieties have
bright red facial markings, crowns or crests.
The legs of the
woodpecker are short and strong. Sharp claws – two pointing forward and two
pointing backward -- ensure a strong grip on tree limbs and trunks. Because of
these adaptations, a woodpecker can walk vertically up a tree! Stiff, pointed
tail feathers – protruding at just the right angle to serve as a balance prop –
are another feature that make the woodpecker well-suited to life in the trees.
The bill of a
woodpecker is very strong – strong enough to withstand lifetime of pecking. The
woodpecker’s primary source of sustenance is insects. While on the hunt for its
next meal, it will peck at a tree and pull off the bark. Some suspect that the
woodpecker may actually hear the bugs in the bark before it begins mining for
them. Beetles, ants, grubs, termites, spiders, and caterpillars are all on the
menu. A long, barbed, sticky tongue provides an additional tool for extracting
them. The woodpecker will also eat sap, berries, nuts and seeds.
One might wonder how
such a small head and neck could withstand a lifetime of repeated impact. The
woodpecker is well-adapted to pecking. Its brain is small, and positioned in
such as way as the impact is minimized. Its eyes and nostrils also have
protective mechanisms built in. And its neck is very strong. All of that
pecking actually helps to keep the bill sharp!
The woodpecker not
only uses its bill for foraging, but for communication as well. In the spring,
you may hear a woodpecker drumming on a tree, a wooden structure, or even a
metal object like a gutter or downspout, in order to attract a mate.
Pecking is also
essential for the excavation of a new home. The woodpecker roosts and nests in the
small holes that it bores into trees, usually a new one each year. It will
carve out an entrance ranging from 1.25 to 4.5 inches, then line the bottom of
the nest with the resulting woodchips. The female lays around 4 to 6 eggs,
which are incubated for 11-18 days, a responsibility shared by both members of
a mating pair. Feeding is a family affair as well. After 3-4 weeks, the
fledglings are ready to leave the nest.
travel in pairs, but they’re not known to flock. Most of our local woodpeckers
live here year-round, but the flicker and the sapsucker are migratory.
The flickers here at
our house are probably attracted by the suet we hang. They will also forage on
the ground for insects, although I suspect that our resident turkey flock may
have already mined that territory for all it’s worth!
woodpeckers can do serious damage. They come by their name honestly. We’ve had
a number of shingles replaced on the sides of our house, due to holes pecked by
our feathered friends. Luckily, our current flicker in residence has taken on a
different project – enlarging the entrance to one of our bird houses.
If you have a
woodpecker problem, Mass Wildlife offers a few recommendations for how to deal
with it. Noise will often drive a woodpecker away, so you can yell or clap at
it, or play loud music from an open window. Spraying it with a hose will also
help, but you have to be consistent. Woodpeckers are attracted to dark and/or
natural-stained wood, but they don’t seem to like shiny stuff all that much.
Mass Wildlife says to hang high-reflective Mylar tape over an area frequented
by woodpeckers, . . . or if that’s too high tech, even aluminum pie plates can
help. There are also helium-filled Mylar balloons with owl-like eyes that can
help scare them off – just be sure not to hang them near power lines. You can
also use plastic sheeting or fruit netting.
If you’re interested
in birds, check out this week’s Water Watch Lecture Series, “Project Puffin:
The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock,” Wednesday,
February 3rd at 7:30pm at the South Shore Natural Science Center.
For more information, visit http://www.nsrwa.org/nsrwa-events/.
Kezia Bacon's articles
appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local
non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance
and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For
membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at
(781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 19 years of Nature (Human and
Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com