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Northern Flicker’s fascinating color differences explained

Typical flickers are shown at the top: Red-shafted on the left and Yellow-shafted on the right. At lower left is an intergrade, with uniformly intermediate wing color and an intermediate head pattern. At lower right is an abnormally colored Yellow-shafted, with a few red feathers in the wings. Art by David Sibley

Northern Flicker is a familiar bird throughout the lower 48 states and southern Canada. Within that wide range it occurs in two strikingly different forms, long ago considered separate species: “Red-shafted Flicker” in the west, “Yellow-shafted Flicker” in the east.

The two forms differ most obviously in the color of the large feathers of the wings and tail, either red or yellow, respectively. They also differ in head pattern. In the middle of the continent, however, the forms mix, and it is common to see flickers with intermediate wing and tail color. Anywhere between the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and the eastern edge of the Great Plains you should expect to see some flickers with intermediate colors. On closer inspection, these birds also show mixed head patterns, confirming their identity as intergrades.

The red and yellow colors in birds are produced by carotenoid pigments. All carotenoids come from the birds’ diet, and (usually) any difference in color results from a difference in the way each population processes those carotenoids to produce pigments. There are variations in the saturation and shade of color depending on the age, sex, and health of the bird, but in general these red and yellow colors are quite consistent. Given the same diet, an eastern flicker will produce yellow feathers, a western flicker will produce red feathers, and an intergrade flicker orange feathers.

The exception to that rule involves a chemical compound found in the fruit of some Asian honeysuckles, now common across much of North America. When birds consume this new compound, it produces a red pigment, even in species that are normally yellow. This has led to the appearance of Cedar Waxwings with orange tail bands, Baltimore Orioles with red breasts, etc. It also leads to the occasional appearance of eastern “Yellow-shafted Flickers” with a few red feathers in their wings.

David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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