Drum Beat of the Northern Flicker

A male northern flicker beats his customary drumming tree

We hear a lot of woodpecker drumming in our woods, and it’s not always clear who is doing the percussion work. But when I hear a deep, resonant drumroll, I immediately look to what I’ve come to call the timpani tree. It’s a magnet for northern flickers. Or, perhaps this instrument serves the same flicker over and again. My reading tells me that flickers are territorial, and they may drum to send a warning to interlopers.

For at least three years, flicker drumming has led me to this tree. Well, ‘tree’ may be a bit of a misstatement, because it’s really a remnant of a long-dead tree; one of the many snags that grace our property.

This snag is well suited to its percussive task. You don’t have to look very closely to see that it’s hollow, and the tree wall is quite thin. The result is a particularly resonant sound under the staccato strike of the flicker’s bill.

Speaking of staccato strikes, there’s something peculiar about the flickers’ drum beats on this tree.

Look carefully at the mark I circled on the timpani tree.

A northern flicker's drumming makes a divot on a tree
A northern flicker’s drumming makes a divot on a tree

You’ll find it easily in the video, where I stitched together several flicker drum-beat clips. Notice where he lands his bill each time he strikes the snag. The flicker—or flickers—have never varied their strike in all the times I’ve watched them drum the timpani tree. The divot we see is a testimony to a repeat performance in that spot.

Has our flicker friend found a sweet spot, tuned precisely to the message he wishes to send? Or do his feet seek a familiar landing place, which in turn places his beak in a customary location?

The latter is unlikely because woodpeckers grasp tree trunks instead of perching on branches. There’s no limb beneath the flicker’s feet that would place him in precisely the same landing spot each time he visits this tree.

I like to think these birds are musicians, particularly tuned to their instrument’s timbre.

You (and especially kids in your life!) can discover more about the flicker’s musical preferences on my Kids Discover Nature-Resources & Activites page. I have a few good links there for additional information about northern flickers, and a downloadable step-by-step activity sheet called Drum like a Woodpecker.

If you enjoyed watching the flicker beat his drum, you might like to see an example of the bravado of this magnificent bird.  The following video is from a series I published a few years ago, called ‘Who’s Knocking at the Door,” Episode 3 of the Lucy story. Lucy, as we named her, is a pileated woodpecker. She and her mate Ricky (of course!) include our home in their territory. I watched for weeks as Lucy and Ricky nested in a tree just outside our door, and I was not the only creature peeking into their nest cavity. In this episode, a flicker shows he’s fearless, as he sticks his bill into the nest of the much bigger bird.

Finally, in the Drum like a Woodpecker activity, I included a question, with a promise to put the answer in this blog post. The question: How many strikes does the flicker make with each drumroll? The answer: about 25.

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