Preparations among the members of our wildlife community have been underway for weeks, if not months, for the arrival of snow and temperatures low enough to freeze the upper layer of soil. Most bugs are genetically programmed to enter a dormant stage of their life in advance of this onset of adverse weather, and the mammals of the area are well along in the process of modifying their physical structure (accumulating fat and growing a thick layer of fur) in order to cope.
Many species of birds have either left, or will soon be exiting, our region because of the inhospitable conditions building throughout the northern latitudes. Among our migratory birds is a member of the woodpecker family forced to leave because of its preference for pecking at the soil, rather than on trees, for its meal of bugs. The northern flicker has body shape, plumage characteristics and pecking talents similar to its non-migratory relatives; however this common seasonal resident of the Adirondacks is now on its way, or will be leaving shortly, for a more temperate climatic zone.
The northern flicker is a handsome, blue-jay size bird with an olive-brown back marked with horizontal black streaks and a large white patch near its rump. This white marking is especially conspicuous when the flicker takes to the air and flies directly away from a person. Consequently, identification of a flicker from a car or truck is easy when this bird flushes from the side of a road and travels for a brief period parallel to the road before veering into the woods.
Like other members of this family, the flicker has a hard and durable bill adapted for repeatedly rapping or chiseling into dense substances. Yet, rather than chip away at the exterior of a tree or a partially rotted interior of a large limb or trunk, the flicker pecks the soil for bugs, especially ants. As is the case with other woodpeckers, particularly the pileated, the flicker has an innate tolerance to the unappealing taste of formic acid which permeates the body of ants and makes them unpalatable to nearly all insect eaters.
Because of the flicker’s taste for soil ants, this bird tends to concentrate its time along the edge of woodlands and in forest clearings where soil ants thrive. In the Adirondacks, the narrow strip of open land adjacent to roads often contains sandy soil, which is ideal for supporting the colonies of several species of these highly social insects. Additionally, the grasses and weeds that line our backcountry by-ways attract numerous other bugs that the flicker eats when it gets the chance.
When perched on top of an ant colony, the flicker uses its long and dexterous tongue to latch onto and pull into its mouth any ants crawling over the soil’s surface. The flicker may occasionally peck down around one of the entrances to the colony in an attempt to snag individuals in tunnels and chambers several inches below the surface.
As cooler weather develops during early autumn and invertebrate activity diminishes, the flicker is known to incorporate increasing quantities of berries and seeds into its diet. However, the number of these tiny fruits and seeds gradually dwindles in early October making it a challenge for the flicker to find enough to eat past Columbus Day. This year there were still enough crickets and grasshoppers in forest clearing to provide this bird with an adequate supply of food during our extended spell of Indian summer weather to entice some flickers to remain for several additional weeks.
It is usually around Veteran’s Day in the Adirondacks that it becomes cold enough to allow several inches of frost to form in the soil. Even with its hard and durable bill, the flicker is no longer able to access the array of soil bugs that it traditionally consumes during the warmer months of the year. It is usually at this time that most of the stragglers vacate the region, unless they are able to find a damp spot sheltered from the cold that remains free of frost and ice until even later in the season.
Like numerous migratory birds, the flicker does not travel into the southernmost sections of the Continent in which to pass the winter. This hardy bird flies only as far south as it has to in order to find patches of frost-free soil and places where seeds, berries and grain can be collected from the ground. Over the past years, flickers have been reported to remain in semi-wooded settings in southern sections of New York State.
The preview of the coming season that the Adirondacks has experienced the past week has caused numerous birds to vacate the region for warmer settings, and among those leaving has been the northern flicker, which always returns when the soil thaws again in mid-April to launch its assault on colonies of soil ants.
Photo: Red-shafted Northern Flickers: female (left), and male (right). Photo courtesy Wikipedia user David Margrave.