The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) or common flicker is a medium-sized bird of the woodpecker family. It is native to most of North America, parts of Central America, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands, and is one of the few woodpecker species that migrate. Over 100 common names for the northern flicker are known, including yellowhammer (not to be confused with the Eurasian yellowhammer), clape, gaffer woodpecker, harry-wicket, heigh-ho, wake-up, walk-up, wick-up, yarrup, and gawker bird. Many of these names derive from attempts to imitate some of its calls.
The English naturalist Mark Catesby described and illustrated the northern flicker in his book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands which was published between 1729 and 1732. Catesby used the English name “Gold-winged Wood-pecker” and the Latin Picus major alis aureis. When in 1758 the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus updated his Systema Naturae for the tenth edition, he included the northern flicker, coined the binomial nameCuculus auratus and cited Catesby’s book. The specific epithet auratus is a Latin word meaning “gilded” or “ornamented with gold”. The type locality is South Carolina. The northern flicker is one of 13 extant New World woodpeckers now placed in the genusColaptes that was introduced by the Irish zoologist Nicholas Aylward Vigors in 1825 with the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) as the type species.
Ten subspecies of northern flicker are recognized, of which one is now extinct. The extant subspecies were at one time considered subspecies of two separate species called the yellow-shafted flicker (C. auratus) and the red-shafted flicker (C. cafer), but they commonly interbreed where their ranges overlap and are now considered one species by the American Ornithologists Union. This is an example of what is referred to as the “species problem“.
- The southern yellow-shafted flicker (C. a. auratus) resides in the southeastern United States. They are yellow under the tail and underwings and have yellow shafts on their primaries. They have a grey cap, a beige face, and a red bar at the nape of the neck. Males have a black mustache. Colaptes comes from the Greek verb colapt, meaning “to peck”; auratus is from the Latin root aurat, meaning “gold” or “golden”, and refers to the bird’s underwings. As the state bird of Alabama, this subspecies is known by the common name “yellowhammer”, a term that originated during the American Civil War to describe Confederate soldiers from Alabama.
- The northern yellow-shafted flicker (C. a. luteus; syn. C. a borealis) resides from central Alaska through most of Canada to southern Labrador, Newfoundland, and the northeastern United States.
- The Cuban yellow-shafted flicker (C a. chrysocaulosus) is restricted to Cuba.
- The Grand Cayman yellow-shafted flicker (C. a. gundlachi) is restricted to Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands.
- The western red-shafted flicker (C. a. cafer) resides in western North America. It is red under the tail and underwings and have red shafts on their primaries. It has a beige cap and a grey face. Males have a red mustache. The subspecific name cafer is the result of an error made in 1788 by the German systematist Johann Gmelin, who believed that its original habitat was in South Africa among the Xhosa people, then known as the “Kaffirs“. As the origin of the subspecies designation is regarded as offensive by some, proposals to alter the scientific name of this subspecies have been presented to the American Ornithological Society. The Society, in accordance with the rules governing scientific nomenclature, has as of September 2018 declined to support a change of the scientific name, but may consult with the ICZN on the matter.
- The coastal red-shafted flicker (C. a. collaris) has a range that closely overlaps that of C. a. cafer, extending along much of the West Coast of North America from British Columbia to northwestern Mexico.
- The dwarf red-shafted flicker (C. a. nanus) resides in western Texas south to northeastern Mexico.
- The Mexican red-shafted flicker (C. a. mexicanus) resides in central and southern Mexico from Durango to San Luis Potosí and Oaxaca.
- The Guadalupe red-shafted flicker (C. a. rufipileus) is extinct and was formerly restricted to Guadalupe Island, off the northwestern coast of Mexico. Its presence was last recorded in 1906. It may be invalid.Vagrants of an extant mainland red-shafted subspecies have recently begun recolonizing Guadalupe Island as the habitat improved after the removal of feral goats.
- The Guatemalan red-shafted flicker (C. a. mexicanoides) resides in the highlands of southern Mexico and Central America. It is considered by some authorities to be a separate species.
C. a. cafer: female (left), male (right)
C. a. chrysocaulosus
C. a. mexicanoides