Northern Flicker

Our neighbors in Lakewood (suburban Denver) found they had a female American Kestrel roosting on a beam under their deck  last winter.  In hopes that a pair might nest, my husband built a kestrel box for them.  However, I later realized that males attract females to their territories, rather than the other way around.  So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the female stopped roosting and moved on somewhere.

In early May, the neighbor reported that the box had eggs in it!  I said, rather glumly, “Probably House Sparrows or European Starlings…”  But she quickly replied that she had seen a woodpecker in the box.  We grabbed the ladder, clambered up to look in—and lo and behold, we found a clutch of 5 relatively large, beautiful pearly-pink eggs.  Definitely not House Sparrow or European Starlings!  (Click on any photo to see a larger version.  If the photo opens in the same window, use your browser’s “back” button to return to this page.)

As the eggs develop, the pinkish tinge should begin to fade—perhaps by day 4 or 5.  Both male and female incubate the eggs, unlike many other birds.  The next day, I caught the male as he left the box (below).

Incubation of the eggs is done by both the female and the male, which is a bit unusual.  (In many other species, only the female incubates the eggs.  She is the only one who develops a brood patch—a highly vascularized patch of skin on her breast/belly that provides extra warmth for the developing eggs.  But with flickers, the female tends to brood during the day and the male, at night.  Birds of North America Online notes that eggs typically hatch pretty quickly—9 or 10 days after brooding begins.  With a quick calculation of when the first egg might have been laid, I figured out when hatching day might  be (roughly 11 – 12 days after the eggs were laid).  My calculation was pretty close—these 3 probably had hatched earlier that day.

At Day 4, the 2 remaining eggs hadn’t hatched.  If you look closely at the unhatched eggs, you’ll see some interesting things.  The egg on the left still had a pinkish tinge to it.  It perhaps was infertile, since it never turned to the grayer color.  The egg on the right has that grayer tinge, however, you see a large white-colored area at the wide end of the egg.   That’s the air pocket, which should initially be at the wide end of the egg and shrink as the embryo grows.  The air pocket in the egg on the left is located at the midline, which is all wrong; the egg on the right, the air pocket is too big and shows that the embryo didn’t develop very far.  So we would watch these 3 grow up.  Look at those long, long necks!

Day 8 and they looked more like dinosaurs than ever before.  The white “bumps” that you see at the corners of the beak are the corners of gape flanges—white edgings that line the nestling’s open mouth.  (When baby birds beg for food, they “gape.”)  Many young birds have these bright gape flanges, which fade as the nestlings age.  The apparently graying of the skin is really the beginnings of the feathers starting to come through the skin.  You can see the white tips of the beak, which is a good field mark for a very young flicker.

Still looking rather lizard-like at Day 11, but you see that eyes are open and pin feathers are through the skin.  These kids seemed to spend most of their time huddled together.  This “puppy pile” behavior is supposed to lessen starting around Day 15.  We shall see…

At Day 15, the kids were finally starting to look a bit more like flickers than lizards.  See the white patch above the tail of the bird on the bottom of the pile?  These are the white uppertail coverts, which are responsible for the flicker’s nickname of “cottontail.”   (If you watch an adult Northern Flicker fly away from you, you’ll see this bold white patch on the back above the tail.  When the bird is sitting, the wings cover this area of feathers.)  These youngsters are still huddling together as if they were freezing—despite warm temperatures.  And notice how clean the bottom of this box is.  The adults are doing a stellar job of removing fecal sacs when they come in to feed the kids.  Perhaps that’s one advantage of a small clutch.  (Flicker clutches tend to average 5 – 9 young.)

With Day 18, the nestlings were finally not lying on top of each other.  They were now reacting when my husband opened the side of the box to take a photo.  The constant chatter ceased immediately and they flattened themselves on the bottom of the box.  Their tails were getting long; their feathers looked much like a soft, fuzzy version of an adult’s plumage; their beaks were getting long (although you can still see the white spot on the beak of the one at about 7:00).

Day 21 and they really looked grown-up.  If you look really closely (you’ll need to click on the photo to see a larger view), you can see a hint of the malar stripe on the nestling whose beak was at about 8:00.  One male; 2 females.  We wouldn’t have many more photo opportunities.  Once we started seeing beaks and heads at the entrance hole, that would signal the end of our intrusions.

By Day 25, the young male was hanging out at the entrance hole.  No more opening the box, to avoid the chance of a premature fledging.

This young male had fledged while we were out of town for the weekend.  When we got back, we spotted one of the females at the entrance hole, watching the world, waiting for food, and screwing up her courage to take the plunge.  Below on the left, the male feeds her.  On the right, she’s really checking out the big world outside that box.  (Note the difference in the light.  All of the previous photos had been taken in afternoon light; these 2 below, in morning light.)


Sometime during Day 30, the last female fledged.  Day 30!!!  Birds of North America Online says that fledging occurs Day 24 – Day 27.  The adults clearly wanted her out of the box—they were very noisy, calling loudly from various trees around the box.  Hard to know what made the final decision for her.  Probably being hungry was involved, since the adults probably cut way down on feeding her to try to encourage her to leave.


One Response to Northern Flicker

  1. elizabeth says:

    Thank you very much for your photo journal of the flicker nest! I raise orphaned flickers, and your photos are so helpful in determining ages.

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