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Finally, flickers. April 5, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , ,

Or at least, one flicker. As winter finally transitions into spring—something Silence Dogood and I had begun to think would never happen—our friend Ben is seeing the birds of winter that fill our landscape here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, start to give way to the birds of spring.

Amazingly, there are still juncos here, the first time I can remember them being here this late. I blame the ongoing frigid temperatures, which are supposed to dip into the teens again tonight, for keeping the juncos from their northward path. Just yesterday, I saw snow geese still passing over, again to my astonishment. Global warming, where art thou?!

Nonetheless, the birds of summer have begun their annual arrival. I saw our first robin of spring this past weekend, and there was a goldfinch—not yet in bright yellow breeding plumage but still recognizable—on one of our tube feeders just yesterday.

But happiest of all our returning visitors was the Northern flicker we saw flying through the backyard en route to our suet feeder. When Silence and I first bought Hawk’s Haven, flickers were a constant sight. The big, colorful woodpecker relatives cheered us up no end with their entertaining antics.

Not that you’d necessarily recognize the handsome birds as woodpeckers, since they look and act more like big songbirds, sweeping over the lawn rather than hanging out on trees and hammering away. And unlike most woodpeckers, rather than sporting mostly black-and-white plumage, often with red on the head and sometimes with a crest (as in the case of pileated woodpeckers), flickers for the most part are a soft mourning-dove brown, with discreet yellow and red markings. The easiest way to recognize a flicker is to see its white rump-patch flashing as it flies by.

For the first few years, Silence and I delighted in our flickers. Then, about three years later, they disappeared. And not just from our backyard, but from all the yards, parks, and other landscapes in our part of PA. What had happened? Where had they gone?!

One of my favorite backyard birding references, Birds at Your Feeder (Erica H. Dunn and Diana L. Tessaglia-Hymes, Norton, 1999), which summarizes data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, suggests the answer: Flickers are ant-eaters. That’s why they tend to hang out on lawns, searching out ant colonies in the ground and in fallen branches that have decayed and invited ants to make their homes. This of course makes them allies in our war against pests. But unfortunately, it also makes them susceptible to our shortsightedness.

Our ever-increasing use of chemical pesticides on lawns has wiped out the flickers’ food source. And in the South, where flickers feed on fire ants while overwintering, the battle against the nightmarish fire ants has made the flickers an inadvertent casualty of war. According to Birds at Your Feeder, their numbers have declined steadily for thirty years.

So how did it happen that Silence and I saw one in our yard this weekend? Well, maybe the organic lawn-care movement is helping the birds recover. We’re not sure what else to think. But Birds at Your Feeder offers a few tips if you’d like to encourage these delightful birds to visit your own yard: Setting out suet, especially in suet logs (logs with round holes drilled into them that are filled with suet) rather than suet cakes, is the best way to attract them. A large, open yard with a few trees and lots of fruiting shrubs provides their favored habitat. Flickers may eat mixed seed, millet, sunflower seed, corn, peanuts, niger, peanut butter mixes, baked goods, oats, dried fruit, and, of course, water, but are more likely to eat them when spread on the ground than to take them from a feeder.

When Birds at Your Feeder was published, the latest trend in birdfeeding—setting out live, freeze-dried, roasted, and canned mealworms, fly larvae, waxworm larvae, mealworm-suet pellets, mealworm-infused suet cakes, and the like had not caught on. (For a representative sample, check out the selection at Duncraft, http://www.duncraft.com/.) But our friend Ben is willing to bet that the ant-loving flickers would enjoy this fatty, protein-rich fare as well.

Whatever the case, welcome back, flickers! We’re so happy to see you.



1. Barbee' - April 6, 2011

Well, Ben, I can tell you what happened to them in our garden here in Bluegrass area of Kentucky. They were driven out by the starlings! We had a few old trees that were homes for Flickers. One was off down in the little dell over on the bank, but the other one was right out our kitchen’s back window. I watched as day after day multiple starlings harassed the Flicker family until the valiant father was exhausted and defeated as he tried to defend his family. The parents couldn’t leave to collect food for the young, they were in constant battle mode. Finally, the Flickers left, defeated. In the ensuing years, I have seen only one individual visiting briefly while passing through, and oh how I miss their calls and vocalizations, especially that ‘flicka, flicka, flicka’ sound. I hope yours flourish.

Oh no, Barbee’! What a tragic tale! We have a plethora of hateful starlings here, too, but as loud and miserable as they are while in residence, it never occurred to me to blame them for the flicker decline. This is dreadful news!

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