Year of the Bird Series: December – Northern Flicker
Article by: Chris Harris, Environmental Physiology Technician at the University of Windsor
As a birder whose enthusiasm has often exceeded his competency, I have always loved species that could be unambiguously identified and sexed both in the hand and field. Between the distinctive call, hefty size, bright yellow-shafted feathers, white rump, and mustachioed males, the yellow-shafted northern flicker (Colaptes auratus auratus) is my favourite example of a bird that does all the work for me. They possess all the features that make woodpeckers particularly interesting and easy to talk about such as their two forward and two backward zygodactyl toe arrangement or their long sticky tongue that can protrude well beyond their already long bill, while also possessing their own unique peculiarity in being a ground foraging woodpecker. They use their sizeable, pointed beak to hammer and probe the soil for ants, rapidly drum on anything with good resonance, or create and expand tree cavities. Also, like all other woodpeckers, they are always willing to enthusiastically use their beak to point out deficiencies in bander grip technique, a service that I always appreciate even if it isn’t enjoyable.
Our local yellow-shafted variant is just one of 11 currently recognized subspecies of northern flicker that all fit into one of four groups defined by whether their feathers are yellow- or red-shafted and the degree of barring on their feathers. While the total distribution of all northern flickers covers most of North and Central America, the yellow-shafted northern flicker is the figurehead of the yellow-shafted, less barred group that covers a huge territory from Newfoundland to Alaska in the north, down to Florida and Texas in the south. All sub-species, along with the related gilded flickers, can interbreed where their ranges overlap, and hybrids can have the features of either parent or different intermediate traits. This positions the northern flicker as an interesting study in how complicated taxonomy and systematics can be and how difficult it can be to decide the differences between species and subspecies.
It is impossible to talk about woodpeckers without discussing tree cavities since their iconic role is the basis of their name. Flickers are important members of an exclusive group of birds called excavators, who are known to create tree cavities. These cavities are a critical reusable resource in treed habitats and their availability is a strong limiting factor since they support up to 30% of vertebrate biodiversity in some forests. While cavities are usually formed by damage and decay throughout most of the world, excavators are responsible for as much as 77% of all nesting cavities in North America. As one of only two remaining North American species of woodpecker that are large-bodied enough to produce cavities with large entrance holes, flicker cavities are a hot commodity for all types of secondary cavity nesters that cannot create their own cavities like bats, squirrels and other rodents, weasels, ducks, owls, kestrels, and numerous songbirds. Some the best cavities have been observed to support a whole host of species for as long as 20 years after a northern flicker originally created and used it. When combined with their interrelationship with wood rot and fungi, this positions the northern flicker as keystone architects of forest life that sit at the top of the cavity-web in much the same way that beavers shape wetlands.
Unfortunately, this also points to one of the threats to woodpeckers globally, in that they are very sensitive to forest quality, the removal of old-growth and dead wood, and competition for cavities with species such as the European starling. Northern flickers use cavities throughout the year as they spend up to 90% of their nights roosting in a cavity, including during migration, so changes in forest management and urbanization are important throughout their range. As ground foragers, they prefer open woodland, forest edge, and disturbed habitat but are also particularly susceptible to pesticides and insect declines. While they are considered well adapted to human disturbance since they are frequently seen at bird feeders and breed readily in both urban and rural settings, they are nonetheless showing significant declines in population size. The causes are not yet understood, but the northern flicker is yet another worrying example of a common, widespread, human-tolerant bird that is in decline.
Finally, the male northern flicker serves as an excellent role-model for the modern millennial dad. Aside from the long black mustache that even Tom Selleck should be jealous of and their ability to build a home for their family in just two weeks without tools, flickers demonstrate “reversed” breeding roles. Males invest more heavily in offspring care than females by spending more effort constructing and defending the nest and more time incubating and brooding young. When combined with their ability to perform their ritualized Wicka dance, male northern flickers seem to have all the skills necessary to be a hip dad on-the-go. As an easy to observe but charismatic and complex species, the yellow-shafted northern flicker presents a solid case for the perfect final species for Ruthven’s Year of the Bird Series.
December 2018 Newsletter
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you and your family from The Lower Grand River Land Trust and staff.
Ruthven Park National Historic Site will be closed from December 22nd – January 6th inclusive. Please note, phone messages will be returned over the holidays.
We thank you for your support over the year and look forward to your involvement in 2019.
Left Photo – This post card was received by Mrs. Thompson for Christmas in 1910. Fun fact, postage cost 1 cent to send mail in 1910. Post card from Ruthven’s collection.
The Thompson staircase decorated with garland and the Victorian table top tree in the background.
This post card was received by Mrs. Thompson for Christmas in 1910. Fun fact, postage cost 1 cent to send mail in 1910. Post card from Ruthven’s collection.
Generous Donation from Morison Insurance to Ruthven Park’s Banding Station
Rick Ludkin, Chief bander – Ruthven Park receiving a cheque from Rachel LaMaitre (Marketing Manager) and Emily Broadhead (Registered Insurance Broker) both from Morison Insurance and Marilynn Havelka Ruthven CAO on right. Thank you to AVIVA Insurance on behalf o Morison Insurance for the donation. The funds will be used for needed equipment.
Balustrades work on the Mansion
If you noticed recently, the widow’s walk is missing. The wooden balustrade is now sitting in a contractors’ workshop for repair. We thank Parks Canada National Cost-sharing Program for financial support to complete the project.
Thank you! Each year our volunteer housekeepers decorate the mansion for Christmas – below are various rooms in the mansion.
L-R Early 1900’s tree in the double drawing room. Oh my, a 1950-1960’s aluminum tree. 1960’s Scotch Pine tree in the small parlour.
Guests enjoy tea and presentation from Tom Reitz on Christmas in the early 1900’s. Tom has been an avid collector of Christmas memorabilia for over 35 year! After the talk, guests enjoyed a tour of the Thompson Mansion decorated for Christmas.
Left photo: Annie and Tara enjoy tea and cookies while making their Santa head ornament. Middle Photo: The tables all set and ready for guest.
Right photo: Jennifer and Samantha are busy crafting their Santa head take home craft. Samantha is a new member and chair of the membership committee.
Upcoming Events for 2019
February 10th – Be our Valentine. Hear about the romance of the Thompson Family over the generations.
February 16th – Calligraphy Workshop with Quills – Check out the website for more information!
February – Rag Rug Workshop – check back on website for dates and more details.
February 18th – FAMILY DAY – Join us for our Family Day, featuring special guests from Wild Ontario! At 1:00pm, enjoy a hike and scavenger hunt on Ruthven Park’s extensive grounds with light refreshments provided. Then stay for a 2:00pm live show with several amazing birds, hosted by Wild Ontario! The show will be followed by a “nose-to-beak” meet-and-greet.
Admission by donation. Appropriate for all ages. Please dress for the weather and ground conditions. Wild Ontario show is rain or shine! Pre-registration not required.
March 2nd – Ruthven Park NHS Grand Bridal Show
March 11-15th – March Break programs. Check out our website for full details.
March 15th – Irish Whiskey Tasting with host and whiskey connoisseur John Stirrit (member of the Order of the Quaich). Enjoy traditional music from the British Isles and Newfoundland with Billy and the “Goat Set”.
The Lower Grand River Land Trust Inc. c/o Ruthven Park National Historic Site
243 Haldimand Hwy #54, Box 610, Cayuga, Ontario N0A 1E0 • 905.772.0560 email: email@example.com
website: www.ruthvenpark.ca THE LOWER GRAND RIVER LAND TRUST INC.
The LGRLT is a non-government, not-for-profit, charitable, community-based organization. The LGRLT has a mandate to protect land for its natural, cultural and agricultural values, as well as for education and research in its jurisdiction.
Unfortunately Tia McGraff has come down with a cold and has to cancel her concert here at Ruthven Park National Historic Site tomorrow evening Friday December 14th. If you have purchased a ticket and have not heard from us yet, please give us a call at 905.772.0560 to get your refund.
Tuesday, December 11 at 7:00pm ~ Tuesday, December 18 at 7:00pm ~ Thursday, December 20 at 7:00pm
Tour of the historic Thompson Mansion decorated for Christmas, light refreshments will be served in the Coach House.
Pre-registration is required $10 for members and $20 for non-members. Please call us at 905.772.0560 to reserve your spot, spaces are filling up!
The Welcome Centre and Grounds: Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Saturday and Sunday closed or by chance.
The Mansion: 2019 season will begin again May 18th, tours will be offered 7 days a week from May 18 – September 2.
Tours times 10:00 am, 11:30 am, 2:00 pm and 3:30 pm. Give us a call today or check out our website for more information 905.772.0560 or www.ruthvenpark.ca
Phone: (905) 772-0560
243 Haldimand Hwy. #54,
Cayuga, ON N0A 1E0