Updated: Apr 4
The Northern Flicker, a common woodpecker found throughout North America, is often recognized by its brightly colored wings or ear-piercing screams (mostly banders and rehabbers experience this). Possibly, just possibly, you recognize them by the mango-sized holes, they leave in your eaves. (Until you placed a fake owl nearby, costing $19.99 plus tax from your local Home Depot. Then, said owl did not work, leaving a patchwork of boards screwed all over the sides of your home and a black hole of anger towards woodpeckers, in your heart.)
While the species might be easily recognized locally, bird-lovers from the east might not quickly decipher a Northern Flicker in the west. The reason? There are over eleven subspecies of Northern Flicker, and the two main subspecies groups for much of North America, look wildly different.
Northern Flicker Intergrade or Northern Flicker Hybrid?
Before we jump into the diluted Northern Flicker, let's review the definition of intergrade vs hybrid. An intergrade is the product of two subspecies or subspecies groups, and a hybrid is the product of two species. We discussed this in our post on Yellow-rumped Warbler intergrades, found here.
Two Northern Flicker Subspecies Groups
The two groups most birders are familiar with are the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker (auratus group) and the Red-shafted Northern Flicker (cafer group). Those are the main focus for today's post; mostly because the average reader could care less about the other two groups. Moving your gaze downward, you will see a rudimentary breakdown of the range of each subspecies group North America. The map gives you, the reader, an idea of what subspecies group you should expect to see on an average day in most of your state. Red state/province means you should expect red-shafted individuals, and yellow state means you should expect yellow-shafted individuals.
What gives a flicker red-shafted, yellow-shafted, or intergrade coloration?
The Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers share a genome that is over 99% identical. However, the 0.01% difference in DNA between the two groups is all that is required to have significant differences in appearance! How do we know this? Research performed by Stepfanie Aguillon from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology! Just a handful of genes drive the major color differences we see in the Northern Flicker. Insert mind-blown emoji here.
Map of Red-shafted, Yellow-shafted, and Intergrade Flickers
If you are curious about what the giant orange blob represents, it is an oblivion of knowledge. A succubus of hopeful identification. It is the zone of intergradation. The zone of intergradation is the area where these two subspecies groups meet, copulate, and produce babies that will not fit nicely into either group. It likely extends the entire range of the meeting line of the two subspecies groups, however, the map above shows documented intergrades.
If the zone of intergradation scares you, fear no more! Or just fear slightly less. I am here to tell you about the infinite possibilities of morphological characteristics found in intergrades.
First, you need to know what base characteristics can distinguish the two subspecies groups.
Four Base Characteristics for the Northern Flicker Subspecies
Flight Feather Color (Wing & tail)
Those four characteristics are straightforward for non-intergrades. Now, look at some of the possibilities for an intergrade.
OOOFF. That was a sucker punch! Absolutely zero help. You should just quit reading now. ORRR, check out these examples from the zone of intergradation! They may just shed a little light on this pit of despair we have found ourselves in.
Photos of Red-shafted, Yellow-shafted, and Intergrade Flickers
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Be honest. If you saw the left bird in the first photo, with the black malar, fly by very quickly, would you consider it a Yellow-shafted Flicker? I would. Especially without photos! How do we know from these photos that it is an intergrade? Join me on a jaunt through our four points:
Malar - Black
Face - Gray
Nape - Red Crescent (faint)
Feathers - Orangeish-yellow
Two features stand out, face color and feather color. On a true Yellow-shafted Flicker, we would expect a warm, buffy face. Additionally, the flight feathers would be more true yellow. The right bird should be more obvious, but I will walk through that bird as well:
Malar - Red
Face - Buffy
Nape - Red Crescent
Feathers - Yellowish-orange
Ready to try your own birds? Here are three individuals for you to try your newfound skills on! Answers to this quiz can be found HERE.
Improve your woodpecker ID skills with the Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America!
Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America
How do you think you did? There are more photos of these individuals, plus some interesting information, in the answer area in the forum. You can find those HERE.
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