(c) Jack Ballard
Northern flickers, colaptes auratus, are regularly seen over most of the contiguous United States. A woodpecker common to both urban and rural areas, flickers seem contented to mingle with humans or make their own living in wilderness areas seldom traveled by homo sapiens. In the winter, flickers occasionally visit backyard bird feeders, preferring suet and peanut butter.
Two sub-species of flickers wing through our woodlands: red-shafted and yellow-shafted. Yellow-shafted flickers are more commonly found in the east and far north, while red-shafted birds are the flickers of residence in the Rocky Mountains and other areas west of the plains.
Distinguishing between the genders and sub-species of flickers is usually quite simple. Males of both species have a “moustache,” a stripe of color that extends from the back of the beak along the side of the face. These markings are absent in females. Red-shafted birds display brownish hues on the top of the head and reddish lining on the wings and undertail, the coloration on the wings especially conspicuous during flight. Red-shafted males have a red moustache stripe on a gray face. Yellow-shafted flickers have a grayish crown, with yellow wing-linings and feathers under the tail and a brownish face. The moustache stripe on yellow-shafted males is black. They also sport a jaunty red crescent on the nape.
So what happens to the markings when the birds interbreed? Recently I observed a male on the eastern flank of the Rockies in Montana that didn’t fit the coloration of either sub-species. After some exasperated re-reading of my field guides, I realized it was a hybrid. The colorful fellow had the markings of a yellow-shafted bird on its wing linings and under his tail. His crown also had the appearance of a yellow-shafted flicker, but the side of his face was gray with a crimson moustache, bearing the markings of a red-shafted bird. Happy to sight this rare individual, I was even more delighted to capture his picture!