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A Woodpecker On The Ground? It's A Northern Flicker

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

Woodpeckers are famous for, well, pecking wood. When you imagine a woodpecker, most likely you picture a black and white bird hammering away at a tree to get the delicious bugs inside. But sometimes when you scan a flock of robins on the ground you may notice another speckled bird mixed in, a northern flicker.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Northern flickers are unique compared with other woodpeckers. They have a different appearance, they migrate and they have special adaptations that allow them to get their buggy meals on the ground rather than in trees.

Fashionable woodpeckers

Most of our local woodpeckers sport the same colors: black, white and red. The northern flicker, on the other hand, stands out from the crowd. They are generally all brown with light tan on their chests and bellies. These birds are full of patterns, with black bars on their backs and black polka dots all over their bellies. They also look like they are wearing a black bib like we would put on our baby brothers or sisters. The male flickers even look like they have a black mustache.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

The best part of their whole wardrobe is the pop of color only seen when they are in flight. Underneath their flight and tail feathers is bright yellow! If you see a northern flicker in the western half of the United States, they will be bright red underneath instead of yellow.

Common traveler

The northern flicker is one of the most common woodpeckers in the country. They can be found breeding in Canada and living all year in the lower 48 states, Mexico and even parts of Central America. These birds are one of the few North American woodpeckers that migrate. We will not notice much of a difference here in northern Illinois because we see flickers all year round. However, in the wintertime, when you see a northern flicker you may be seeing one that came from up north and traveled south for the winter.


Words to know

Barb: A sharp projection on an object. Cavity: An empty space within a solid object.


Look for these woodpeckers deep in the forest or along the forest edges. They can also be found in open fields that have a few trees. Don’t forget your neighborhoods and parks. If there are trees, there could be flickers nearby! Keep an eye on dead trees or holes in the trees. Northern flickers like to hammer in a hole for their nest. They will also reuse an old cavity that they or another animal made.

Digging for bugs

Like other woodpeckers, northern flickers mainly eat insects. They also eat fruits and seeds in the winter, when insects are hard to find. Their specialty is ants and beetles, which they gather on the ground. Instead of hammering into a tree, flickers will dig into the soil with their slightly curved bills. Then they catch the insects with their long, barbed tongues that can extend 2 inches beyond their bills. It would be like using your tongue as a fishing rod with little hooks to catch juicy bugs.

Scan flocks of birds to see if a northern flicker is mixed in. They could be among robins, sparrows or blackbirds. If you get too close and the birds fly away, look at the bird’s rumps. Northern flickers will show a bright white booty. They fly like they are on a roller coaster, smoothly rising up then falling back down and repeating this up and down pattern.

Next time you see a brown bird with black polka dots on the ground, you will know it is a northern flicker. They don’t spend a lot of time at feeders, but winter would be the best time to see them visiting. Take a hike in one of our forested preserves to scan the forest edges or look in your neighborhood. Ants in your lawn make a perfect meal too, so you may spot one there, too.


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