Swinging flickers in my backyard

Swinging flickers in my backyard

Updated: 1 month, 3 days, 14 hours, 28 minutes, 43 seconds ago

There was a major commotion under my bird feeders. Two “red-shafted” northern flickers were having a major fight bad enough for feathers to be flying. It ended before I could get my camera to record it, but about half an hour later, it happened again in the cloudy bitter cold of a mid-February morning. Taking a chance that it might happen again, I set up out in my truck near the feeders and didn’t have long to wait.

Two females and one male were picking up pieces of suet under a frozen suet cake that a flicker was chipping off while trying to get brunch. An aggressive female left her perch from another tree, landing on the back of the male, driving his head into the loose snow. By the time he wiggled out, the female had washed his face thoroughly. Again, she attacked his head with her powerful bill, then she started raking his back with her claws while beating his head with her wings.

After about five minutes of taking a beating, as the female flew into the air to attack him with her toe claws again, he got enough room to fly off, leaving feathers in his wake.

A male “Red-shafted” northern flicker. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

Flickers are known for their ritual combat fights but those fights are usually with the same gender over territory and mate selection. Fights between males and females are rare so I have no idea what her problem was, a friend of mine suggested that he had gotten too close to the other females and she became a little jealous. That may be truer than not.

About 90 percent of northern flickers pair up in monogamous pairs while about five percent are polyandrous (a female has two partners) and the other five percent are polygynous (a male has two nesting partners). These pairings usually start in February or March and with all the snow and cold, it is happening on their wintering grounds, which happens to be in my backyard for 17 flickers.

That makes my backyard a daily battleground as they work out their social and reproductive relationships. I can waste a lot of time by watching these battles and trying to research what is happening and why. I have not been able to find any research on why the female would attack the male, but an interesting fact that I found was the most successful reproductive flickers are the ones in polyandry relationships.

A male flicker joins two others on a suet cake for brunch. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

In the flicker’s world, the males do most of the incubating and brooding of the young. That means that a mom with her two or three male partners can have two or three families developing at the same time. She usually only sits on the eggs part-time during the day while the males find food for themselves and her and the kids. Several researchers believe that these females are the most dominant of the group.

Researchers also found that some monogamous pairs started out with the male trying to hook up with two females, but the most dominant female drove the other female away, sometimes seriously injuring her rival.

Flickers have many vocalizations, dancing and even bill-touching that become more intense when two females compete for a male. Often he will hide in the nest hole that he started to build while the two females vie for his affections. Most of these shenanigans will happen in May after these flickers have moved to an area far from my backyard.

The female flicker rakes that males back with its talons. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

I have seven suet feeders in my backyard to attract these birds. Many people find flickers a nuisance because of their drumming on tin or hollow trees while they are trying to impress one another, or they peck holes in people’s home or sheds. I find them very entertaining and have not had them damage anything at my place, but I encourage them to leave when it gets time for them to find a nesting territory.

As far as the spring migrations are concerned, I have seen robins and red-winged blackbirds in my yard but the migration of the sandhill cranes, tundra swans and snow geese may be delayed because of the deep snow. Those three migrations usually happen between March 1, to March 15. Keep your eyes and ears tuned for them to come as soon as some melting begins.

A female “Red-shafted” northern flicker attacks a male by pecking its head. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com