A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Permanent resident in the wooded areas of the county, but appears much more common in the winter months as birds come down to lower elevations and begin to appear in closer proximity to human activity, and birds from more northern populations move south to find warmer weather. Very common in suburban areas and parks in the winter. Less common in the flat, marshy areas in the southern extremes of the county. Generally looks and behaves like a woodpecker, but eats mostly ants and other insects, so much more likely to be seen on the ground than other woodpeckers and relatives--sometimes looking like a Robin as it searches for food in grassy or other open areas. Favors wooded areas with open ground nearby for foraging. Typical, undulating, woodpecker flight with a white rump patch and underwing and undertail color especially prominent in flight. Nests in most parts of Sonoma County. Usually quite wary of people.

Always distinctive, but can be confusing because Northern Flicker takes two forms and intergrades are not uncommon near range overlap and occasionally in our area from Autumn through Spring. However, we normally see the Western form, known as Red-shafted Flicker. Yellow-shafted Flicker is the common variety in the East. The most obvious difference is in the coloring of the underwing and undertail linings visible in flight; our flickers flash salmon pink when they fly or raise a wing (photo below). Eastern birds show yellow under the wings.

Otherwise, Northern Flicker is a comparatively large woodpecker with a proportionately large bill on a smallish head. The bill is slightly decurved. Overall, a beige-brown color but barred with black on the back and spotted with black on the paler flanks and belly. The black crescent-shaped “bib” at the upper breast is noteworthy (visible in photo below). White rump patch is conspicuous in flight and often shows between the tips of the folded feathers on perched birds. Males of the Western, reddish form have a red malar stripe or “mustache” on a somewhat greyer cheek than that of the male yellow form, which has a black mustache on a warmer cheek. Crown in the Western form typically browner than in the Eastern, Yellow-shafted form. The latter also sports a red patch at the nape, not present in the male birds we normally see (see photos below). Females of both forms lack the mustache, but Yellow-shafted females have the red nape patch. In other words, any Flicker you see in Sonoma County with a red patch at the nape is a Yellow-shafted Flicker out of its normal range (or may be an intergrade). The yellow-shafted form does show up here from time to time.

Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides), currently given full species status, has in the past been considered a subspecies of Northern Flicker. It’s very similar but not usually present in our area (native to southwestern Arizona, Baja California, and extreme northwestern Mexico). Some of the older sources given below (such as The Birder’s Handbook) treat Gilded Flicker as a subspecies of Northern Flicker.

Calls are worth studying, as Flickers can sound like Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), Pileated Woodpeckers (Drycopus pileatus), and even Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri), which sometimes imitate the vocalizations of other birds.

Trivia: The pink tail and wing feathers were highly prized by native Americans for ornamental purposes (Fix and Bezener). 

English synonyms: Northern Flicker, Red-shafted Flicker, Yellow-shafted Flicker. May also be referred to in some areas (though not typically in Sonoma County) as: Yellowhammer, Boreal Flicker, or Common Flicker (among others).

Northern Flicker in other languages (may refer either to the Red- or Yellow-shafted forms)--German Goldspecht; Spanish: Carpintero Alirrojo, Carpintero Collarejo, Carpintero de Cañones Amarillos, Carpintero de Pechera, Carpintero Dorado, Carpintero Escapulario, Carpintero norteño, Checo norteño; French: Pic doré, Pic flamboyant, Pic rosé; Russian: Золотой дятел, Золотой шилоклювый дятел, шилоклювый дятел; Japanese: ハシボソキツツキ (hashibosokitsutsuki); Chinese: 北扑翅鴷, 普通扑动鴷

(Language information from Avibase, Birds of Europe (Mullarney et al, Princeton Field Guide Series), and Birds of Asia (Mark Brazil, Princeton Field Guide Series).

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 80

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 284

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 96

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 284

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 322

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 387-388

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 338

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 237

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 280

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 218

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 11, 124, 343

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 173-174

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 47

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 218

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 238

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 226

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 264

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 450

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 241

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Northern Flicker




© Colin Talcroft, 2009-2017

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus

Northern Flicker (male, red-shafted form), Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, February 5, 2015

1990-2014 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated February 5, 2015

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Northern Flicker (male, red-shafted form), Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, February 5, 2015

Preening, offering a good view of the salmon-pink underside of a wing.

(Red-shafted form)

Northern Flicker (male, yellow-shafted form; two shots of same individual), Strawberry School Park, December 18, 2016

Note red nape and black rather than red malar stripe