Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Rebel Woodpecker - 153

I've always enjoyed woodpeckers, but not when I had excruciating headaches, but a Northern Flickers life is all about using their slightly curved bills to excavate dead wood or partially rotting wood for a nest site. Sometimes they just like to beat the snot our of hollow metal objects; like mail boxes. Sometimes I think it's just to annoy humans. Each year once both sexes meet they start excavating a new hole preferably someplace in the same nesting tree. Choice home sites include hollow tree stumps and branches, or old weathered fence posts in pasture fields, utility poles or behind the damaged
sidings of buildings. It's wherever they can roost from 2-60 feet above the ground. If threatened by man or predator they will protect their young.

After the nest cavity is hollowed out the female lays from 7-9 pure white, smooth, oval to short oval eggs. Both sexes over the next 11-12 days will incubate the eggs and rotate incubation between themselves every hour. The male incubates the eggs at night while the female rests at a nearby resting perch or preening spot. After the eggs hatch the male takes great care in incubating the brood. Once the young arrive both sexes are nonvocal to each other and the woods return to silence. This is a survival tactic to keep hawks and owls from finding the nestlings. Birds watch each other especially cow birds.

Believe it or not, ornithologists studying the reproductive systems of flickers have discovered that if one egg is removed from the nest each day, the female will lay another egg within 24 hours. She knows how many eggs she laid. Studies show that by removing one egg per day, leaving one egg as a "nest egg," 71 eggs were removed from 1 flicker nest in 73 days. The female only missed 2 days in egg production over the course of 2 months of laying additional 71 eggs. Flickers have the uncanny ability to lay the correct number of eggs that will permit them to produce the maximum number of offspring. Flickers will produce as many surviving young as possible to replace those lost to forces of Mother Nature and man. If a cowbird finds the nest and deposits one of her own in the nest with the other eggs, the woodpeckers will abandon the entire clutch and relay another set of eggs up to nine times. Flickers know the differences in eggs.

Unlike other members of the woodpecker family, the Northern Flicker is known as the "rebel woodpecker," because it does most of its foraging for food on the ground as opposed to pecking insects from behind tree bark. It is a migratory bird to Michigan from Canada and they begin migrating north as the earth warms and ants come to the surface. They begin moving as the snow and ice recede towards the north. Spring, summer and fall diets consist of more than 50% ants. They follow the progression of ants north like geese following the receding snows of winter.

Flickers will sit on the ground below bird feeders and occasionally hang on them, but only sort the seeds. They do swipe a sunflower seed, but prefer looking for ants to eat. Flickers come to feeders looking for cracked corn from April to June, not for the corn, but the ants it attracts. Ants love the sugar properties of corn. They love suet, peanut butter seed cakes in the winter and forage on insects killed by summer bug zappers. Catch the dead bugs and watch the flickers sort them. From mid-summer to fall they feed heavily on wild berries, nuts and seeds.

What also makes flickers rebels is the fact that they have long, smooth, sticky tongues instead of the barbed tongues like other woodpeckers. Flicker tongues are so sticky that ants quickly adhere to it and they love little fire ants in those big ant hill mounds in open fields. These birds do a war dance atop those two to three foot diameter ant hills using their feet and bills to stir up the ants inside. When the crawling nasties storm out to defend their home the flicker slurps them them up faster than an Aardvark. Flickers make craters in the tops of those ant hills when probing for ants, which are used for trapping more ants, too.

That African aardvark on the Pink Panther cartoon show always made me laugh when I saw his long probing nose with a flared nostril sucking up ants with mega sounds of a powerful vacuum cleaner. Aardvarks like flickers really use their long sticky tongues for slurping up ants and termites.

Flickers regurgitate food to their young unlike their cousins who feed their young with sticky sap-well dunked insects. During early morning hours the young are fed about every ten minutes, but after noon are fed only once an hour. Both sexes take turns feeding the young continually for three weeks.

Once the young birds start sticking their heads out of the nest hole, they will leave the nest and fly within seven days. Leaving the nest they are strong fliers, but will remain with the parents for two-three more weeks. The young are still dependent on their parents for food and protection, but by the end of that three week period they will be able to take care of themselves. Once the young leave the adult flickers they will go through one complete molt. The plumage colors change from late July through September, but time lapsed depends on when the young left the family group.

You will always know when spring arrives in the bird world when you see Northern Flickers slurping up ants or seeing them stomping the ground. "Shall we, dance" takes on a new meaning when you watch Northern Flickers eating.

Watch for more exciting tales about nature from my naturalist travels.

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