Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus Scientific name definitions

Karen L. Wiebe and William S. Moore
Version: 2.0 — Published July 7, 2023

Diet and Foraging


Unlike most other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker feeds mostly on the ground where it laps up insects, primarily ants, with its long, barbed tongue. It also consumes fruits and seeds, especially during winter months.


Microhabitat for Foraging

Forages primarily on the ground, probing the soil surface, especially at anthills and subterranean ant colonies. Ground cover that facilitates access to ants (bare ground, short grass) is favored, whereas tall grass and thick layers of grassy thatch are avoided (155). It tends to forage near forest edges or near small clumps of trees, probably to provide escape cover from predators (156). It rarely forages on trunks and branches of trees (131, 157), although this behavior becomes more common in winter when feeding on berries or fruits of trees. The Cuban subspecies (chrysocaulosus) is reported to be more arboreal in foraging habits than other subspecies (65). Likewise, on Grand Cayman Island subspecies gundlachi is reported to forage primarily in the decaying branches of trees where most ant colonies seem to be found (158).

The Northern Flicker adjusts its foraging microhabitat relative to the ambient temperature which affects the surface abundance of ants. On cold days, the open grassland surface warms more rapidly than the forest and Northern Flickers at Riske Creek preferred to forage in the open grasslands, but on hot days or hot afternoons when ants move underground to avoid desiccation, individuals switched to foraging under the canopy of the open forest where ants were more abundant (159).

Food Capture and Consumption

Forages during daylight hours for ants and other insects by probing and hammering in the soil with their powerful bills. On rangelands, they may use their bills to break apart dried cow dung which harbors colonies of ants or beetles (157). The Northern Flickerwas a very efficient predator of larval tiger beetles in their subterranean burrows (160). Flickers have a remarkable protrusile tongue, derived by great elongation of the basihyal and part of the hyoid horns, that is characteristic of woodpeckers. Its sticky tongue darts out as much as 4 cm beyond the bill tip as it laps up adult and larval ants (133). Based on 156 time budgets collected from 39 females and 38 males feeding nestlings in central British Columbia, females spent 50% of their time and males 45% foraging overall (161). However, time spent foraging declined in cold weather (< 10º C) when ants were less active and was positively correlated with nestling age. At the latitude of Riske Creek, British Columbia, most foraging occurred between 7:00–19:00 h (161).

Capture techniques may depend on the size and aggressiveness of the ant species. At Riske Creek, Northern Flickers avoided large thatch mounds of aggressive formica ants although sometimes they picked off individual ants traveling to and from the mounds (155). Instead, birds hopped on the ground, covering a substantial area while catching individual ants from smaller species or probing for short periods for small ant colonies under stones. At other locales, may more regularly visit specific ant colonies and probe for a considerable time, catching both adults and larvae. The anterior of the esophagus is extensible to form a crop approximately 1 × 6 cm, which is used to carry food to hatchlings. Depending on breeding densities, theNorthern Flicker may forage singly or in small groups, with conspecifics, or with other ground-foraging species such as European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) or American Robin (Turdus migratorius) (156). Group foraging may also occur in winter (a pair to as many as 12 birds) feeding on a crop of preferred fruit (133).

On grasslands in central British Columbia where the Northern Flicker focused mainly on the smaller and scattered ant colonies, individuals did not repeatedly visit the same foraging location, probably to avoid a depleted food patch (162). Furthermore, members of a breeding pair foraged farther from each other than expected by chance, with males foraging closer to the nest than females, probably so they would not compete with each other for food on the home range (162).


Major Food Items

Especially during the breeding season, ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) usually comprise the majority of the diet, but other ground-dwelling insects or larvae such as beetles (Carabidae) are also important (163). In late fall and winter, fruits supplement the diet (October–February; 163). Ant genera reported by Beal (163), Elchuk and Wiebe (156), and Gow et al. (164) include: Aphaenogaster, Camponotus, Cremastogaster, Formica, Lasius, Messor, Myrmica, Pheidole, Phrenolepis, Solenopsis, Tapinoma, and Tetramorium. Smaller percentages of diet were composed of Hemiptera, Diptera, Lepidoptera, Orthoptera, Isoptera, Crustacea, and Mollusca. May forage extensively on crop pests in winter such as corn borer (Diatraea grandiosella) and limit their populations (165). Ten seeds and fruits most frequently recorded by Beal (163) based on stomach contents were (numbers refer to frequency in 684 sampled stomach contents): poison ivy (Rhus radicans, 82), bayberry (Myrica carolinensis, 48), sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica, 32), black cherry (Prunus serotina, 30), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis, 24), frost grape (Vitis cordifolia, 22), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida, 16), blackberry and raspberry (Rubus spp., 15), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra, 11), and sumac (Rhus sp., 11). Additional food plants in the West included pigweed (Amaranthus sp.), purslane (Portulaca sp.), gooseberry (Ribes menziesi), bur clover (Medicago denticulatum), filaree (Erodium cicutarium), poison oak (Rhus diversiloba), pepper berry (Schinus molle), woodbine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), elderberry (Sambucus nigra), sunflower (Helianthus sp.), and thistle (Centaurea spp.) (see 163). Diets of breeding males and females did not differ (164).

Quantitative Analysis

Beal (163) provided a detailed quantitative analysis based on stomach contents which is summarized in Table 4. Unfortunately, Beal did not state whether percentages of stomach contents represent biomass or counts of individual prey items nor did he give a complete breakdown of collecting locales and dates. Based on hard chitinous fragments in fecal samples of breeding adults at Riske Creek, British Columbia, about 98% of the diet (based on frequency of items) were ants of several genera (164). Animal matter, mainly ants, termites and beetles, formed 98% of the volume in the stomachs of 19 adults from Grand Cayman Island (158). DNA barcoding of fecal samples of 24 nestlings from 6 nests from a recently burned forests in western United States revealed greater diet breadth with 83% of the fecal samples containing ants and with Diptera, Lepidoptera, and Hemiptera also being common, found in 60–83% of samples (166).

Food Selection and Storage

On the grasslands of central British Columbia, Northern Flicker avoided foraging on the large, thatch mounds of Formica ants, apparently because the aggressive adults had strong bites and formic acid defenses. They instead focused on smaller ant species, and/or larval ants (167). Whether the Northern Flicker is selective of ant species in other locations or simply takes prey opportunistically needs further study.

Nutrition and Energetics

Information needed. Northern Flicker is unable to synthesize carotenoid precursors of red and yellow feather pigments (168); these are obtained from the diet and can be supplemented from a variety of vegetables (e.g., carrots, paprika); see Plumages. One Northern Flicker was observed eating clay from a riverbank which was assumed to aid in digestion and mineral consumption (169), but further observations are needed to determine whether such birds are excavating for insects in the ground or excavating roost sites such that the soil consumption was incidental.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Information needed.

Drinking, Pellet-Casting, and Defecation

May occasionally drink from natural catch-basins in trees, such as knot-holes (133, WSM) or from the edges of streams, ponds, or lakes (e.g., 157). A flicker was seen chipping at ice under a suet feeder in January in Montana and eating the small fragments, presumably as a source of water (170), but perhaps also targeting fallen food fragments in the ice.

Recommended Citation

Wiebe, K. L. and W. S. Moore (2023). Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.norfli.02