Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus Scientific name definitions

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

Movements and Migration

Dispersal and Site Fidelity

Natal Philopatry and Dispersal

Precise estimates of natal dispersal distance are unavailable because juveniles disperse farther than the size of most study areas, and a large sample of yearlings with known fates has not been tracked. Based on a small sample (n = 3) of juvenile yellow-shafted flickers recovered breeding in a subsequent breeding season (U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab data), the average distance between natal locale and breeding locale for the 3 dispersers was 191 km, and so root-mean-square dispersal (standard deviation in position between where banded and recovered) is 100.7 km (135). Estimates of dispersal based on genetic structure of populations also indicate dispersal rates are high (54). The average annual local recruitment rate within the study area at Riske Creek in central British Columbia based on 8,722 fledglings was greater for males (3.36%) than females (2.55%), indicating that most (> 96%) of the offspring dispersed farther than 30 km, the breadth of the study area (136).

Of the 243 local recruits at Riske Creek, two individuals nested in the cavity they were hatched in; females nested a median distance of 4.07 km from their natal cavity tree and males 3.46 km. Annual local recruitment increased (and by inference natal dispersal distance decreased) with an increase in average spring temperature, and dispersal distance did not depend on whether or not a parent was still breeding at the natal site (136). Local recruits initiated breeding earlier than yearling immigrants and suffered less nest depredation than immigrants, suggesting that familiarity with the natal site was a benefit to fitness.

Adult Fidelity to Breeding Site and Dispersal

It appears that once an adult has bred at a locale it usually returns to its "home range" in subsequent breeding seasons, although not necessarily to the same nest tree. All 71 flickers banded as adults during one breeding season and recovered in a subsequent breeding season were recovered at the same locale (U.S.G.S. Bird Banding Lab data; WSM, unpublished analysis). Among adults (two years or older) at Riske Creek, the mean breeding dispersal distance (distance between nesting trees) was 201 m for females and 82 m for males. Birds dispersed farther if they're nests had been depredated the previous year, although subsequent nest success was independent of the distance moved (137). No breeding adults banded at Riske Creek were subsequently detected breeding off the study area, suggesting that breeding dispersal distances do not usually exceed 30 km, the breadth of the study area (KLW). Within a breeding season, 27% of 37 pairs with depredated nests placed their replacement nest in the same cavity, and only 41% of pairs moved > 150 m (137).

Fidelity to Overwintering Home Range

Information needed. There is one report of a male flicker color-banded at Riske Creek, British Columbia that fed at a backyard bird feeder in Olympia, Washington for three consecutive winters (KLW).

Migration Overview

A heavy reliance on finding food on the ground means that most Northern Flickers migrate away from areas with deep and persistent snow cover in winter. Recovery records in the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab data base (n = 182 band recoveries) and of 17 individuals fitted with light-level geolocators revealed that northern populations are strongly migratory, whereas populations breeding in the southern United States are more sedentary, wintering at or near breeding areas (138). The Northern Flicker becomes rare or absent in northern British Columbia in winter (139), whereas in California, numbers increase during fall and winter as migrants arrive from the north. California breeders also move from higher to lower elevations to overwinter, and some may migrate from the state (140). Bent (9) also described altitudinal migration with a more or less well-defined movement of birds from the Rocky Mountains into the Great Plains. The Northern Flicker is a winter visitor to northern Mexico from October to March (44) and a winter visitor only in the lower Colorado River Valley from early October to early April (141).

Females winter, on average, farther north than males, although there is extensive overlap of the sexes on the nonbreeding range (138). Subspecies in Guatemala, Cuba, and Grand Cayman Island presumably are nonmigratory, but some seasonal change in altitudinal distribution may occur (65).

Timing and Routes of Migration


Arrival and departure dates vary latitudinally. In many parts of the geographic range, migratory individuals may mix with resident ones so it is difficult to get a precise measure of migration timing from sightings in spring and fall. Peak spring migration generally occurs from late March to mid April, with most birds reaching breeding grounds in the north by mid April. Peak fall migration generally occurs from September to mid October, with more limited migration continuing into December.

In spring migration, first migrants in Missouri arrive by mid March, with peak from late March to early April (142). In Cape May, New Jersey, spring migrants are first noted in early March, with peak movement noted 4–5 April (143). In Massachusetts, first spring migrants arrive in late March, with peak numbers in mid April (144). First arrival dates of 26 March, 4 April, and 23 March in 3 consecutive years at National, Iowa (145), and Lawrence (146) reported a range of arrival dates of 30 March–29 April with a mean date of 18 April at her study site in Pimsi Bay, central Ontario (46.2765°N). Even farther north at Besnard Lake in central Saskatchewan (55.4266°N), the earliest arrival date was 13 April, but most arrived the last week of April (120). In the West, migrant flickers arrive in southern British Columbia by early March in late May in the far north (139). In central British Columbia at Riske Creek (51.9684°N), flickers arrive in early April and most have settled by the first week of May (KLW).

Average dates when the bulk depart in fall and when last seen, respectively: southern Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa: 2–13 October and 25–27 October; Maine, New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota: 26 September–3 October and 2–9 October (132). Peak fall migration at Pimsi Bay, Ontario, varied over the years from 1–26 September (146). In Missouri, first fall migrants appear by early September, with peak fall migration from late September to early October (142). In Massachusetts, peak fall migration occurs from mid to late September (144). In Cape May, New Jersey, the earliest southbound individuals may occur at the end of July, but the first significant movements are reported in mid September; peak numbers occur late September to mid October, with some fall migrants continuing into December (143). At Besnard Lake in central Saskatchewan, the latest fall record was 9 October (120). In the West, fall migration begins in late August, peaks mid to late September, and continues through October in British Columbia (139). Fall “flights” were noted in California from early to mid-October (140).

Burns (132) reported that males seemed to arrive in spring before females, but cited no data in support. There was no noticeable difference in arrival timing between the sexes in central British Columbia (KLW). Yellow-shafted and red-shafted phenotypes did not differ in spring arrival time within the hybrid zone at Riske Creek, British Columbia (50).


Based on 183 banding recoveries in the U.S. Geological Survey database and 17 individuals fitted with light-level geolocators, migration routes were generally oriented in a north‒south direction such that birds breeding west of the Continental Divide also wintered west of the divide, near the Pacific coast; whereas, those breeding east of the divide wintered on the east side (138). The Rocky Mountains thus appear to be a geographical divide for migration that most Northern Flickers do not cross. Birds breeding in the central portion of the continent, including the Canadian prairie provinces, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa, wintered in Texas and Oklahoma. Birds breeding in northeastern inland areas from Michigan and southern Ontario to Maine and Pennsylvania appear to move to a wintering area from eastern Texas and the southeastern states along the Gulf Coast. Those Northern Flickers farthest east, from New Jersey, eastern New York, New England, and the Maritime Provinces migrate south along the seaboard to overwinter in southern Atlantic coastal states (138). Based on a combination of band recoveries and geolocator data from across North America, the mean distance traveled was 913 ± 701 km (n = 197 individuals) (138).

Although the routes are usually north‒south in orientation, even birds from the same population breeding at the same location travel different distances. Breeding Northern Flickers banded at Riske Creek, British Columbia and later recovered in winter (n = 17) were found as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, but most traveled farther, reaching to Washington, Oregon, and the Sacramento Valley of California (50). One Northern Flicker from Riske Creek traveled to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, a distance of 2,882 km, but migration distances more than 2,000 km were rare (138). The mean Subspecies hybrids are commonly reported from the provinces and states along the Pacific Coast in winter and almost certainly emanate from the hybrid zone in British Columbia. In California, substantial fall flights sometimes occur along the coast and in the desert interior, and spring and fall migrants appear regularly on offshore islands (140). One fledgling banded in June at Riske Creek, British Columbia was recovered at the end of September in St. John's, Newfoundland (KLW), an incredible transcontinental journey about 4,850 km to the east, but this extreme east-west route was aberrant.

Migratory Behavior

The details of flicker migratory behavior are limited. Although some migration occurs after dark (132, 147, 148, 149, 134), diurnal (observable) flights are most frequently mentioned in the literature. Bent (9) recounted an observation of continuous departure of hundreds of Northern Flickers, throughout the morning during fall migration, from Long Point, Ontario, south across Lake Erie. Hundreds of flickers passing in flocks along the shore of Lake Superior were reported by Blockstein and Fall (150). Stone (147) provided a vivid description of fall (late September) flights of flickers along Cape May beaches. “One of the most striking ornithological sights of the region....movement takes place mainly at night and what we see early in the morning is the closing of the flight as the birds settle down to feed and rest...normal flight is south along the coast [but with strong northwest wind] the birds are blown offshore and try to beat back to land...as we skirted the northern edge of a dense woods stretching towards the Bay we saw flickers constantly shooting out over the treetops...a hasty count showed 25–30 in sight at any moment....occasionally one would alight on the top of some tree rising above the rest...others would decoy to him...we estimated that at least 5,000 flickers had passed while we watched them.”

The Northern Flicker can migrate in loose flocks that vary in size from a few individuals to over 100 (published figures are imprecise); flocks may become substantially more concentrated where they funnel onto peninsulas, seeking short routes over major bodies of water (e.g., Point Pelee, Ontario, extending into Lake Erie). At Fire Island, New York, up to 2,000 individuals were recorded in a single morning flight, with 1,000 in passing in less than 1 hour (151).

Weather influences migration rates as well as departure dates (132, 147). At Riske Creek in central British Columbia, the annual arrival time in spring was earlier when the annual temperature along the migration route up the Pacific coast during March and April was warmer (152). In the longer term, as climate warms, this may lead to earlier average migrations in the spring measured over decades (153). Analysis of geolocator data from 17 migrating individuals suggested that the birds roosted in cavities during the night between 49‒89% of the time (154).

Control and Physiology of Migration

Information needed.

The Cornell Lab logo
Data provided by eBird

Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus


Estimates of relative abundance for every week of the year animated to show movement patterns. Relative abundance is the estimated average count of individuals detected by an eBirder during a 1 hour, 1 kilometer traveling checklist at the optimal time of day for each species.   Learn more about this data

Relative abundance
Week of the year

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