Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus Scientific name definitions

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



Generally occurs in a wide range of habitats that contain two necessary resources: 1) dead or dying trees for a nesting substrate, and 2) large areas of open ground for easy access to the main prey (ants). It therefore breeds in a variety of landscapes such as rangelands and farmlands with scattered trees, to open woodlands, to boreal forest edges and clearcuts. It also frequents suburban areas. There are no distinct differences between the variation in habitat structure of breeding versus nonbreeding flickers, although most flickers migrate southward to avoid snow-covered ground in winter.

Habitat in Breeding Range

Canada and United States

The Northern Flicker occurs in forest edge, open woodland, and savanna, with variation in tree species composition as broad as the geographic range of this species (9, 110, 111, 112). Along the Rocky Mountains and in the West, it occurs in subalpine forest characterized by subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), limber pine (Pinus flexilis), and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) (113); oak–juniper–pine woodland (114); pine–oak woodland (115); pinyon–juniper forest; and montane forest characterized by ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), yellow pine (Pinus p. brachyptera), Engelmann spruce, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), white fir (Abies concolor), and trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) (116, 117). Also found in riparian woodlands dominated by cottonwood (Populus sp.; e.g., 118), especially on the Great Plains (1, 119). It is a common woodpecker in the northern boreal forest comprised of various species of pine, spruce, fir, birch, and aspen and is often associated with gaps caused by floods, wildfires or beaver ponds with numerous snags (120). In agricultural landscapes in the southeast, it is found in many hardwood forests; in farm woodlots, and shelter belts; and settled areas from villages to suburbs (121) to large cities (e.g., breeds in Detroit, Michigan; WSM). May be common in clearcuts if snags remain standing (122, 112).

The Northern Flicker is reported nesting in most tree species in the wide range of woodlands they inhabit. Open or savanna-like structure of the habitat which provides space for foraging is more important than tree species (122). In many mixed-wood boreal forests, flickers are particularly common in trembling aspen stands, presumably because aspen is preferred as a nesting tree (123, 124).


Subspecies in Cuba (gundlachi) and Grand Cayman Island (chrysocaulosus) occupy semi-deciduous and evergreen woodland and second growth, pine forest, coastal vegetation adjacent to forest, and mangroves, occurring to at least 1,250 m elevation (Cuba) (104). On Grand Cayman Island, Johnston (125) reported that it is found chiefly in black mangrove forest, less frequently in dry woodland. Both Cuban and Grand Cayman flickers are more arboreal than other subspecies of Northern Flicker (65, 125).

Mexico and Central America

Generally, subspecies inhabit understory to midstory of highland pine and pine–oak forest, semi-open habitats, scrub, plantations, and gardens, from 1,000–4,000 m elevation (126). In Honduras, it occurs along Pacific and Caribbean slopes in pine and pine‒oak forest, from 500–2,500 m elevation (127). At the southern limit of its distribution in northwestern Nicaragua, it is considered a highland pine and pine‒oak forest specialist, occurring above 1,000 m, but visits cloud forest on occasion (128).

Habitat in Nonbreeding Range

Habitat in Migration

No specific studies, but casual observation suggests that it occupies similar habitat types as on breeding territories (KLW).

Habitat in Overwintering Range

A wide range of habitats is used and most are the same as those recorded for the breeding range, as flickers are resident in much of their geographic range. Wintering flickers (during January and February) surveyed in southern bottomland hardwood forests in eastern Arkansas were reported at densities ranging from 1‒60 individuals/km2 on different plots (129). Bottomland hardwood forests were also preferred habitat for wintering flickers in Texas (130). In suburban areas, bird feeders regularly supplement the diet (131). In regions where ants and other living insects become less available, a shift to a more vegetarian diet may cause birds to exploit different habitats. In eastern North America in winter, Northern Flicker was abundant in swamps, where it fed on a variety of berries (132, 133). Royall and Bray (134) radio-tracked 4 birds in north-central Colorado (city of Lakewood), an area that included residences, office buildings, pastures, fields, and a stream from mid-February through March. These birds maintained home ranges of 48‒101 ha, similar to that of breeding flickers. One bird spent most of its time in a residential area, whereas the other 3 were most frequently associated with cottonwoods. Information needed on seasonal changes in habitat for Cuban Flicker and Guatemalan Flicker.

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