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Northern Flicker Intergrades - Red-shafted vs Yellow-shafted Flickers

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Two male Northern Flicker Intergrades
Two male Northern Flickers.

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.

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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.

Which flicker do you have?

  • Yellow-shafted

  • Red-shafted

  • Intergrade

  • All 3

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 of 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 in 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.


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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

Northern Flicker Range map
Expected Northern Flicker subspecies group based on location

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

  1. Malar Color

  2. Face Color

  3. Nape Pattern

  4. Flight Feather Color (Wing & tail)

Field Mark

Red-shafted Group (male)

Yellow-shafted Group (male)

Red-shafted Group (female)

Yellow-shafted Group (female)





No malar stripe

Face Color


Buffy to warm, light brown


Buffy to warm, light brown

Nape Pattern


Red Crescent


Red Crescent

Feather Color (wing/tail)

Pinkish to reddish to red


Pinkish to reddish to red


Those four characteristics are straightforward for non-intergrades. Now, look at some of the possibilities for an intergrade.

Field Mark

Intergrade Northern Flicker (male)

Intergrade Northern Flicker (female)

Malar Color

Red, black, red+black

Buffy, none

Face Color

Gray, buffy, gray+buffy

Gray, buffy, gray+buffy

Nape Pattern

Red crescent, none

Red crescent, none

Feather Color (wing/tail)

Red, yellow, reddish, orange, yellow+orange, yellow+red

Red, yellow, reddish, orange, yellow+orange, yellow+red

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

Two NOFL intergrades.
Two Northern Flicker intergrades.

Look at these two Northern Flicker Intergrades. The left individual has a black malar stripe, gray face, faint red crescent, and orangeish-yellow flight feathers. The right individual has a red malar stripe, red crescent, buffy face, and orangish-red flight feathers.

Photo breakdown:

  • Photo 1 - See a full breakdown below.

  • Photo 2 - Look at the photo showing the napes (back of the head/neck). Note the varying amount of red crescent that is visible. This is a trait from the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. However, these individuals have traits that do not agree with our chart above for a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.

  • Photo 3 - This wing is from the right bird (red malar). Note that it is slightly more orange than yellow.

  • Photo 4 - This wing is from the left bird (black malar). It is more yellow than orange.


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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:

  1. Malar - Black

  2. Face - Gray

  3. Nape - Red Crescent (faint)

  4. Feathers - Orangeish-yellow

Two features stand out on the right bird, 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:

  1. Malar - Red

  2. Face - Buffy

  3. Nape - Red Crescent

  4. 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 below.

Quiz Answers

  1. Bird 1 - Intergrade - Bi-colored malar, red nape markings, gray face with buffy edging, and orange flight feathers

  2. Bird 2 - Intergrade - Bi-colored malar, buffy face

  3. Bird 3 - Intergrade - Buffy malar, grayish face, yellow-ish flight feathers


Improve your woodpecker ID skills with the Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America!

Our favorite woodpecker guide:

Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America

Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America

I hope this was a helpful article on Northern Flicker intergrades! Have questions or information to add? Use the comment section below or reach out to us!


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