Wild Side: Making a strong showing

The northern flickers are here in unusually high numbers this year.

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The 62nd annual Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held amid drizzle, fog, and an incredibly high tide on Sunday, Jan. 2. My own effort, counting birds from West Chop to Vineyard Haven to Thimble Farm, was undermined by a car breakdown. But my impression of the day matched reports from everyone else: few notable birds, a species count that was average at best, and low counts of individuals almost across the board.

A bright spot, though, came in the form of our strangest woodpecker species, the northern flicker. Flickers are always found on our CBC, but in highly variable numbers. The flicker count has ranged from as few as five individuals in 1961 and 2018 to as many as 280 (1985). This winter’s count produced a very respectable 95 flickers, the highest tally since 2008; even my own abbreviated effort produced a count of nine, handily above the two or three I’d expect in a typical year.

The variation in numbers reflects one peculiarity of this remarkable bird: While most woodpeckers show little migratory tendency, northern flickers show pronounced and sometimes dramatic seasonal movements. Some winters, the species lingers in coastal New England in large numbers; other years, flickers essentially vacate the region entirely.

Weather is undoubtedly a major determinant of how pronounced flicker migration will be. The species is squarely in the “semi-hardy” class of birds, able to manage a mild winter but vulnerable to extreme cold or thick snow cover. A harsh beginning to the winter invariably cuts deeply into Vineyard flicker numbers, whether through departure or mortality.

But flicker migration takes place largely before winter conditions have become evident. Peak movement is usually noted in the second half of September, when an active observer may see hundreds in a day, particularly along the coast. What persuades flickers to migrate or not migrate at that time is a complete mystery to me, though by this point in the season, it is safe to assume that individual flickers are responding to local weather conditions in deciding whether to sit tight or head south.

The vulnerability of the northern flicker to winter weather surely relates to the diet of this species, which is an odd one for a woodpecker. As a group, woodpeckers are highly insectivorous; their trademark chisel-like beaks, skull structure designed to tolerate impact, and prodigiously long tongues show that the basic woodpecker design evolved to support the excavation and extraction of arthropods from tree trunks. Flickers, to be sure, join their relatives in flaking off bark or hacking open insect tunnels in wood. But the bill of a flicker, long and slightly downturned relative to a typical woodpecker bill, is less suitable for chopping wood, and reflects the highly varied diet of this species.

In addition to wood-boring insects, flickers are inordinately fond of ants, which they hunt while hopping around on the ground. These birds also forage extensively on vegetable matter, with berries of all kinds a particular favorite in winter. And along with the red-bellied woodpecker, flickers are perfectly willing to take seed from a bird-feeding station. Versatility serves the species well under most conditions. But it doesn’t take much snow to obscure the flicker’s favored winter food sources.

On the other side of the score sheet, flickers seem to be a favored prey of bird-eating hawks, including the peregrine falcon and Cooper’s hawk; whether this is because flickers are somehow desirable to eat, or because they’re easy targets, is a good question.

The flicker ranks among the most recognizable of our birds, brown overall but with black barring on the back, black spotting on the pale underside, a gray nape with a red crescent on it, and a bold black band across the breast. In flight, flickers show a clear white rump as they bop along with a typical, undulating woodpecker flight pattern. Flickers in our region have bright yellow wing linings, often visible in flight; western birds, considered a different subspecies, have the same markings, except for red instead of yellow on the inside of the wings. It’s an outlandish, clown-like outfit.

Flickers are as easily recognized by sound as by sight. In the breeding season, males give a prolonged, ringing, “kee! kee! kee!” call. The most common note in winter is a cheerful call that sounds like “Clear!” to my ears, which carries hundreds of yards under good conditions. If this bird is around, you know it.

Puzzlingly, different data sources show different population trends for the flicker in Massachusetts. Breeding Bird Survey results show a resolute decline in numbers over the past half-century, adding up to a decline of about 75 percent across that period. But Massachusetts Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas showed relatively little change in statewide numbers for this species between the 1970s and the present. I’ve yet to see a convincing explanation for this apparent discrepancy, and I certainly have none of my own to offer.

Our own CBC numbers are too volatile to yield a precise trend without a complicated analysis, but a casual look suggests that winter flicker numbers peaked here in the 1980s and have drifted generally downward since. But for the time being, at least, this odd-looking bird is unseasonably plentiful on the Island, and I for one am happy to have them around.

 

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