Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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The View from Sapsucker Woods

While mapping scrub-jay territories under a blue Florida sky recently, I noticed a sight I remember from childhood—“flicker wars.” Atop a dead snag, four Yellow-shafted Flickers were perched together, bobbing at odd angles from one another with wings flashing and tails fanned. The noisy display featured dry rattles and the wonderful, liquid FLICK-er-FLICK-er-FLICK-er that yields their English name. Two additional flickers flew in, and I could hear two more, from their own calling posts 100 meters away. Here I stood, in recently burned, scrubby pinelands of central Florida, surrounded by no fewer than eight Yellow-shafted Flickers consumed in territorial rites of spring.

Most of us don’t give flickers much thought, except perhaps during the occasional “flicker days” of early April when the countryside seems awash with them, dashing northward. One of America’s most familiar garden birds, the Northern Flicker includes two distinct subspecies: Red-shafted Flicker in western woodlands and Yellow-shafted Flicker east of the Rockies. From coast to coast, everybody has always treated flickers as part of the landscape. But when was the last time you saw eight flickers in one place on their breeding grounds?

The Yellow-shafted Flicker is one of the most rapidly disappearing birds in North America. Breeding Bird Surveys show a steady decline of three to five percent annually since the mid 1960s. Christmas Bird Counts depict the same trend. By these estimates, there may be only one-third as many flickers around today as there were in 1960.

We can only speculate on what is causing this bird to decline so dramatically. For this ant-eating woodpecker, a suite of land-use changes probably compound to lower birth rates or elevate death rates: (1) suburban sprawl, (2) prevalence of lawn and agricultural pesticides, (3) removal of dead snags, (4) expansion of Eurasian Starlings, (5) expansion of large-scale agriculture, (6) fire suppression, and even-ironically-(7) regrowth of eastern deciduous forests, which reduces the woodland openings favored by flickers.

This last possibility reminds us that not all population declines signal an ecological “problem” in need of a solution. In many areas where Yellow-shafted Flickers have declined, both Red-bellied and Pileated woodpeckers actually have grown more common. The point is that we should stop being complacent about any large-scale decline of a common species until we know why it’s happening. Eight flickers displaying together in a Florida burn woke me up and made me stop taking flickers for granted. Everyone who loves this sight should want to help solve the mystery. Let’s do it while flickers are still common.

—John W. Fitzpatrick
Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director