The Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory contains breeding territory of five species of woodpeckers: Hairy, Downy, Pileated, American Three-toed, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. While we see plenty of them during their migrations (yes, some woodpeckers migrate like songbirds), Yellow-shafted Flickers rarely set up breeding territories near our sites.
Indeed, prior to this year, we had never captured an actively breeding Flicker during our ongoing Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. The last Flicker banded during MAPS was caught July 30, 2003 as a migrant. Yet all spring we could hear a Flicker drumming just south of the migration monitoring station and we finally caught one with a brood patch last week.
Yellow-shafted Flickers are a subspecies of Northern Flicker with the rigid part of their feathers (the shaft) being yellow compared to the Red-shafted subspecies’ red shafts. Although they have the chisel-like bill of other woodpeckers, Flickers can often be found on the ground digging around in the soil for ants which make up much of their diets. They are a relatively large woodpecker with white rumps, beautifully contrasting black striping on their soft brown backs, a thick black bib, and circular dots on their pinkish-tan chests. Males and females look different with male Yellow-shafted Flickers exhibiting a black moustache that is lacking in the females.
You may have noticed that the pictured bird we captured was a male, but didn’t we say it had a brood patch? Being an avid reader of these articles, you may say, “only females have brood patches so they can get direct skin contact with their eggs while they incubate. Surely you are mistaken.” But that is a fun thing about woodpeckers: both males and females incubate their eggs.
Flickers often excavate nesting cavities in aspen which they may reuse over multiple years. This makes them unusual since other woodpeckers often make a new cavity yearly, with other species of birds moving into the old cavity. Woodpecker’s ability to make new habitat for other species from what many people would consider to be eyesores of old, dead trees is critical for a healthy ecosystem. This is why Pileated Woodpeckers are included under federal migratory bird legislation despite not migrating. They are a keystone species that supports over 30 other wildlife species. There may be comparatively few woodpeckers in any local ecosystem, but they are critical to that ecosystems’ functions.
In another stroke of luck for our MAPS sites, just this morning (July 5, 2023) we captured an American Three-toed Woodpecker and his son. While this species has at least one, maybe even two, breeding pairs near our sites, we rarely capture them and these two birds are just the fourth and fifth banded during MAPS and, having banded just one during Spring Migration Monitoring in 2018, they are just the fifth and sixth we have ever banded since 1993!
Woodpeckers, nature’s master carpenters, are sometimes seen as nuisances by those unaware of their importance to their neighbouring wildlife. It is illegal to harm or kill woodpeckers. If a woodpecker is pecking your house, try hanging wind chimes or pinwheels near the problem area to deter it. Furthermore, you can support woodpeckers by leaving dead trees that are not hazardous to yourself or your property. Even if snags are ugly, they are a part of a healthy ecosystem.
By Robyn Perkins, LSLBO Bander-in-Charge