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Those Funny Flickers

The bird that knocks and rolls

Published in the October 2022 Issue Published online: Oct 10, 2022 Outdoors
Viewed 1125 time(s)


BACKYARD BIRDWATCHING ISN’T EXCLUSIVE TO SPRING. Try it this fall for robins roosting in brilliant autumn aspens, jays perched on ornamental driftwood and those funny spotted birds called flickers. They flit about in fall too and they put on the best offseason performance. It goes something like this.

Knock, knock, knock. “Well that’s strange,” I say to myself looking out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock. I push my chair away from my desk, stand up and leave my office.

My work space is situated at the front of my house near the entry door. There are windows on most of the walls so I can easily see when anyone approaches my porch. Comes in handy when the guy in brown driving the brown truck delivers packages. But I’m not expecting anything, there’s no brown truck at my curb and there’s no one on my porch. There’s that incessant knock again.

I yank open the front door, look out then step out turning back toward my own house. That’s when movement to my right catches my eye. It’s a flicker, the source of the knock, and now it’s fleeing like one of the neighbor kids pranking a doorbell ditch. The bird does its funny bounce-float fly in retreat but doesn’t go far, moving only from my son’s bedroom wall above my office to my neighbor’s leafless tree across the street. It’ll return when I retreat. It’s not done knocking and rolling.

Why flickers knock on your house

Northern flickers, also known as harrywickets, are the most widespread woodpecker in North America. They used to be classified as red-shafted flickers in the West and yellow-shafted flickers in the East, but the range of the two overlaps and they cross breed so now they’re all classified as Northern Flickers.

The origin of the ‘shafted’ identification is inspired by flashy bars of color under brown speckled wings that reveal when the bird with the black-barred back and dotted belly flies. Around my Idaho Falls home, I often see brilliant red-orange shafts, but never yellow.

Flickers knock, or drum, with their beaks for two reasons. The first reason is food. I’ve seen flickers perched sideways on the trunk of the large, commanding willow tree in my backyard. They have long, strong toes with curved nails that grab bark so their stance looks like they’re defying gravity. They also have stiff tail feathers propping them up as they probe for edible bugs in the bark. My house is stucco and siding, no wood, but flickers knock it anyway. There are crevices for hiding insects where pane meets wall and trim meets roof. Be it bark or building, flickers knock to shake bugs loose. Hollow, which I’m sure many crannies behind stucco are, is what they seek. They knock the hollow area until they see, or hear, bugs move. Then they chisel until they catch a meal or they’re spooked away, whichever comes first. That’s one reason for the ruckus. The other reason is territorial. Sound amplifies and travels farther when the house’s hollow spot is hit.

Why flickers roll in your yard

Woodpeckers have long tongues, but flickers’ tongues are two inches longer than other species and their tongues are sticky. It’s an ant trap according to American Bird Conservancy. Flickers lay down in your yard, stick their tongues out, and breakfast literally sticks.

They love ants so much, they do more than eat them. They roll in them (passive anting) and wear them (active anting). It’s high fashion in the feather world. Ants contain formic acid. Formic acid reduces parasites on bird bodies. Wearing ants is fashionable because feathers look better and functional because feathers fly better.

How to host flickers without damaging your property

With all their knocking and rolling, flickers are an entertaining bird worth watching, but not worth losing your house for. Insect control is a plus, so invite them for that, but limit where they can carry on.

Some people hang balloons or pinwheels in their eaves, but flickers know a fraud when they see the same one for a few days, so those don’t deter permanently. Exclusion works best, meaning make the hot spot inaccessible. Hardwood cloth or bird netting should keep them off your house, but let them have the anthill in your yard. A rolling bird never gets old.

Also add a thin piece of balsam to your yard décor. It gives flickers somewhere, other than your house, to channel their pecking drive. Install a few flicker boxes too. Keep them dry and full of woodchips. A ramped up woodpecker will excavate a full box for hours, much to your backyard bird-watching delight.

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. My Place Among Fish, the sequel to her first book, My Place Among Men, is available now. See more of her work at


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