The Northern flicker, an oddball woodpecker

From my living room window the other day, I spied a large brownish bird with a striking white rump hopping about and pecking at something on my lawn. I recognized it immediately -- a Northern flicker, the most unusual of Georgia’s seven year-round woodpecker species.

For one thing, the Northern flicker's coloration is brown rather than black and white, like other Georgia woodpeckers. Also, unlike most woodpeckers, which search for food in trees, the Northern flicker forages primarily on the ground, moving in short hops as it probes for insects, especially ants, with its long, slightly down-curved bill. Its barbed tongue, extending about 2 inches beyond the end of its bill, is covered with sticky saliva, ideal for snatching ants scurrying aboveground or in subterranean tunnels.

The flicker, in fact, is a virtual ant-eating machine. It consumes ants more than any other species of birds. Biologists have found as many as 5,000 ants in a flicker’s stomach. The bird not only gets nourishment from ants, it sometimes crushes them with its beak and rubs them on its body. The ants’ formic acid is believed to be effective against small parasites that infest the flicker’s skin and feathers.

Flickers become more conspicuous this time of year. During late fall and winter, seeds, berries and fallen fruit on the ground make up a large portion of the bird’s diet. Flickers also will visit feeders in fall and winter and take fruit and berries from trees and bushes. Come spring, they’ll do like most other woodpeckers -- excavate a nesting cavity in a dead tree.

Something startled the flicker foraging on my lawn, and it took off suddenly with the bounding, undulating flight characteristic of woodpeckers in general.

As I followed it with my binoculars, it revealed its white rump, yellow underwings and tail bottom that readily identify it -- and are the reasons it’s sometimes called “yellow-shafted flicker” or “yellowhammer.” It also has been called “polka dot bird” because of the numerous showy black dots on its whitish underparts. Other identifying features are a bright red crescent on the nape of the neck and, on the male, a black “mustache.”

Next to the pileated woodpecker, the dove-size Northern flicker is Georgia’s second-largest woodpecker. It’s also one of our most widespread birds, living in urban areas as well as forests. At one time, it probably was Georgia’s most common woodpecker, but its numbers have plummeted in recent decades due to loss of nesting habitat and competition with other cavity nesters. “The decline is cause for concern,” says the Atlanta Audubon Society.

In the sky: The Orionid meteor shower will be visible for most of next week, peaking at 25 meteors per hour on Thursday night, said David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Science Museum. Look to the east from about midnight until dawn.

The moon will be full on Friday night -- the “hunter’s moon“ as October’s full moon is known. Venus and Mars set in the west about an hour after sunset. Jupiter rises out of the east at dusk and appears near the moon Tuesday night.