Category Archives: Birds

Northern Flicker – Colaptes Auratus

General: The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus,) is a widespread and common species that can be spotted foraging along the ground for insects in your backyard or in woodlands across much of North America. Like all woodpeckers, they are often heard before they are spotted, capable of producing loud drumming on wood or metal. Their striking coloration sets them apart from other woodpecker species, flashing brilliant yellow or red highlights depending on geographic location. While Northern Flickers are widespread and listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, populations across much of their geographic range have been experiencing declining numbers.

Description: Northern Flickers are a large species of woodpecker, easily distinguished by their white rumps, black-scalloped plumage, and striking black chests. They reach a mature size of 11” to 12” in length, and 4oz. to 6oz. in weight with a 16.5” to 20” wingspan and 4.5” to 5” long flared tail (which tapers to a point1.) They have slender, round heads and 1.5” long bills that curve slightly downward. Their barbed tongues are used to capture insects, reaching a length of 2” when thrust out of their bills.

Northern Flickers are the only woodpeckers to have white rumps and gray-brown barred backs marked with black scallops. Their undersides are pale buff to white with black spotting and their chests feature black crescents. Northern Flicker males have tan heads, gray faces, red or black moustaches, gray crowns and red or black napes and are generally more colorful than females2. Geographic color variations occur. The flight feathers, underwings and beneath the tail are highlighted with bright yellow (in eastern populations) or salmon-red (in western populations.)
The Northern Flicker is a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family
Northern Flickers in eastern regions are referred to as ‘Yellow-Shafted,’ known for the bright yellow coloration that appears on the flight feathers, underwings, and below the tail. They also have red napes and black moustache stripes. Western populations, known as ‘Red-Shafted,’ have salmon-red coloration on flight feathers, underwings, and below their tails. They lack the red nape found in other populations, have red moustaches, paler undersides and broader crescents on their breasts. In the Great Plains region on the edges of eastern and western habitats, hybrids can occur. These individuals typically have a combination of the characteristics of eastern and western populations

Northern Flickers are one of the only North American woodpecker species that is migratory. Northern populations move to southern portions of their geographic range between September and October and return to their northern habitats between March and April. Some populations have been observed migrating to Cuba, the Grand Cayman Islands, or as far south as Nicaragua.

Northern Flickers prefer to forage on the ground but may also be found climbing tree trunks or perched upright along horizontal branches. In flight, they use an undulating flight pattern, alternating heavy wing flaps with periods of gliding to create a bouncy, slow flight3.

Male Northern Flickers can be quite aggressive, especially in the defense of a mate or territory. Displays of aggression can include “bill poking,” which consists of pointing and pecking their bills in the direction of an opponent, “head swinging, and “head bobbing.” Aggression may also be communicated through fanned out tails4.

In addition to body posture, Northern Flickers communicate with a variety of sounds. Their calls include a piercing rattle, which has an undulating volume and lasts for around 8 seconds. This call is made by individuals establishing mating pairs and territories and can be heard in the spring and early summer. Another sound consists of a single, piercing note (which lasts half a second) that is made year round called a kyeer. Interacting Northern Flickers often make a soft, slow wicka-wicka sound. Most often associated with woodpeckers is the loud, rhythmic drumming they produce by hammering on wood, or metal. This drumming is used as a means of communication and defense. Northern Flickers are capable of 25 evenly spaced beats per second, often interspersed with long series of wick-wick-wick sounds5. You may also hear the incessant calls of young Northern Flickers in the late summer.

Northern Flickers have been known to live to over 9 years old but in the wild most Northern Flickers survive only a few years.

Habitat: Northern Flickers can be found in woodlands, flooded swamps, along forest edges or marsh edges, in city parks, suburban backyards and birdbaths, open fields amongst scattered trees, and in western mountain ranges in all stages of forest (as high up as the tree line.)

Within their habitats, Northern Flickers are vulnerable to birds of prey, including Cooper’s Hawks. Raccoons, snakes, and squirrels prey on their young. However, when approached by a predator, Northern Flickers show little response. They may fly tentatively around the predator or thrust their bill in the direction of the threat6.

Location: The geographic range of the Northern Flicker stretches across much of North America, from Alaska to Quebec and south across the entire United States. As a migratory species, some populations of Northern Flickers migrate to southern areas of their geographic range or as far south as the Grand Cayman Islands, Cuba, and the highlands of Nicuargua7.

Diet: Northern Flickers are omnivorous and are often found chiseling into the ground in search of insects. Like other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers also chisel into wooden surfaces for boring insects. First, a Northern Flicker will tap on a surface to listen for insect activity within. After chiseling a hole with their curved bill (in the ground or in wood) they insert their 2” long barbed tongue to snare their meal. Their diets consist mainly of ants, beetles, and beetle larvae. They also consume fruit (including wild cherries, grapes, elderberries, hackberries, and bayberries,) seeds, nuts, flies, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, aphids, wasps, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, snails, and a variety of vegetation (including poison ivy, oak and sumac, Virginia Creeper, Dogwood, and Hackberry.) During the fall and winter their diets consist mainly of fruit.

Reproduction: Northern Flickers tend to breed once annually during their breeding season, which occurs between February and July (although these birds have been known to breed twice within one breeding season.) Individuals return to the same breeding area year after year.

Beginning in the early spring, male Northern Flickers participate in rival displays to attract potential mates. These shows, called “fencing duels,” are preformed in front of females and may include head bobbing (in males use their raised bills to draw figure-eight patterns in the air,) and wicka sounds.

After mating pairs have been formed, both males and females begin excavating a nest. These nests are often built in cavities in trees (sometimes within a nest formerly used by those birds or other birds,) within ground burrows (previously built by other bird species such as Belted Kingfishers,) in old utility or fence posts, or within house siding. Northern Flickers are unlike other woodpecker species in their tendency to reuse their nesting cavities from previous breeding seasons or cavities made by other species8. Nests are excavated to a depth of 13” to 16” and lined with woodchips, widened at the bottom to accommodate eggs and incubation. Nests have entrances that are 3” in diameter and are generally 6’ to 15’ off the ground, although occasionally nests are built substantially higher9.

Between 3 to 12 glossy white eggs (measuring .7” to 1.5” in length) are laid and incubated by both parents for 11 to 13 days. The chicks are born (using their egg teeth to break through their shells,) pink, naked, and clumsy with closed eyes. Both parents feed the chicks even after they have fledged. The chicks begin clinging to the nest walls by 17 days old and begin following their parents out to forage before they are ready to leave the nest at 24 to 27 days old (or by mid-July10.) The chicks molt and develop their adult coloration between June and October. Sexual maturity is reached by one year of age.

Notes of Interest: Northern Flickers are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Great Egret Information Identification

Great Egret

The great egret is a summer visitor to upstate New York. Each summer they come up in spring and stay until late October/early November. The great egret is also known as the common egret, large egret or great white heron. It is a widely distributed egret, with four subspecies found in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and southern EGreat egreturope.

Great Egret populations have increased across most of their range from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, though there appears to have been a decline in Canadian populations. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates that there are over 180,000 breeding birds on the continent, and rates them at least a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Great Egret is not listed on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. During the 19th century great egrets were hunted for their plumes.

What I find interesting is that for such a beautiful bird, its call is usually a low hoarse croak when disturbed, and at nest sites. It can also give a loud croaking cuk cuk cuk and higher-pitched squawks.


Great egret flying - notice he "S" curve in its neck
Great Egrets are tall, standing about 3 ¼ feet tall. They are also long-legged, which helps them wade in shallow water. As can be seen from the pictures, the great egret has an S-curved neck and long, narrow yellow bill. In flight, the long neck is tucked in and the legs extend far beyond the tip of the short tail just like a blue heron. The egret’s wingspan can measure 52” – 70”.

As can be seen, great egrets are white. Their bills are yellowish-orange, and the legs black. If you are out bird watching and come across a white egret, the yellow bill with black legs is the important identifier.

In breeding plumage, delicate ornamental feathers are on the bird’s back. Males and females are identical in appearance; juveniles look like non-breeding adults.


Great egrets live in freshwater, brackish, and marine wetlands. During the breeding season they live in colonies in trees or shrubs with other waterbirds, ranging across the southeastern states and in scattered spots throughout the rest of the U.S. and southern Canada. The colonies are located on lakes, ponds, marshes, estuaries, impoundments, and islands.


The great egret range has expanded as far north as southern Canada. However, in some parts of the southern United States, its numbers have declined due to habitat loss. The great egret is partially migratory, with northern hemisphere birds moving south from areas with colder winters


The great egret feeds in shallow water, marshes and even land. They feed mainly on fish, frogs, small mammals, and occasionally small reptiles and insects, spearing at them with its long, sharp bill most of the time by standing still and allowing the prey to come within its striking distance. Just so it is clear, they do not spear with the bill, they quickly thrust forward and catch the prey in their mouth.


Great egrets are colonial nesters Believe it or not they usually build their stick nests high in trees. You can find them often on islands that are isolated from predators. The nest is up to 3 feet across and 1 foot deep.

The female will lay approximately 1 – 6 smooth, pale greenish blue eggs that are roughly 2” – 2 1/2” long and about 1 1/2” wide. The incubation period is between 23 – 27 days. The young hatch as long and colored white with down covering the back with their eyes open.

Not all young that hatch survive the nestling period. Aggression among nestlings is common and large chicks frequently kill their smaller siblings.


Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura

General: The Turkey Vulture, the most widespread of the New World Vultures, is found throughout most of the Americas (North and South). In certain areas it is called “buzzard” and “Turkey buzzard”. The Turkey Vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult’s bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male Wild Turkey.1 Its life expectancy in the wild ranges upward of 16 years, with a captive life span of over 30 years being possible.2

Turkey Vultures breed in March and into late spring. Eggs are generally laid in a protected location such as a cliff, a cave, a rock crevice, a burrow, inside a hollow tree, or in a thicket. Clutch Size is typically 1 – 3 eggs that are 2.6” – 3” long and 1.7” – 2.1” wide. The eggs are cream-colored, with brown or lavender spots. Incubation is 38 – 41 days. Chicks fledge between 65 – 90 days.

The Turkey Vulture, like most other vultures, has very few vocalization capabilities. Because it lacks a syrinx, it can only utter hisses and grunts. It usually hisses when it feels threatened. Grunts are commonly heard from hungry young and from adults in their courtship display.

Their sense of smell is incredibly unique in the avian world and they are particularly good at picking up the scent of ethyl mercaptan (a gas produced by animals beginning to decay). The olfactory lobe of a turkey vulture is well developed when compared to other avian species which helps allows a turkey vulture to actually detect odors up to 12 miles away.3

Turkey Vultures hold their wings in a shallow V-shape while soaring and riding thermals.

Identification: Turkey Vultures are large dark birds, 25” long with long, broad wings that measure approximately 72” from tip to tip. The Turkey Vulture’s head is red and unfeathered. The yellowish bill is hooked. The plumage is dark brown except for paler flight feathers, appearing black and gray. They have short, thick legs

Habitat: With its substantial distribution throughout the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is a generalist in its habitat choices and can be found in open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, shrub lands, pastures, and deserts. They typically like to stay in areas with open land with nearby areas such as forests for roosting. In the northeastern US, Turkey Vultures can be seen riding thermals over open farmland, the Adirondacks and along lake and ocean shorelines. They are particularly noticeable along roadsides and at landfills.

Territory: Generally, Turkey Vultures can be found from Southern Canada to the southern tip of South America. Certain of its populations do migrate. In upstate New York, Turkey Vultures show up in early Spring and generally leave in early winter.  These northern birds may migrate as far south as South America. In the southern United States the Turkey Vulture is a permanent resident.

The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and feeds almost exclusively on carrion which can be almost any animal – mammal, reptile, fish, etc. Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.











Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo Jamaicensis

Red-Tailed Hawk


The Red-tailed Hawk is a common bird of prey that can be found throughout the contiguous 48 states, Canada into Alaska. These large hawks are commonly seen sitting in trees alongside roads and highways near large fields bordered by tree line.

The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a bird of prey, one of three species colloquially known in the United States as the "chickenhawk,"

“Red-tailed Hawks are the most common and widespread hawk in North America. Red-tail numbers have increased significantly as a result of forest fragmentation that creates the mosaic of interspersed wooded and open areas they prefer. In some areas, this increase has been at the expense of Red-shouldered, Ferruginous, and Swainson’s Hawks.” (1)

Along with the American Kestrel, the Red-tail Hawk is the most commonly captured raptor for falconry in the United States.

Red-tailed Hawks typically put their nests in the crowns of tall trees, cliffs or high on man-made structures where they have a commanding view of the landscape. Both male and female will help in building the nest. The female lays 1 to 3 brown spotted white eggs. Clutch size depends almost exclusively on the availability of prey for the adults. The incubation period is between 28–35 days. The chicks are born helpless and need the parents to provide food and protection. The chicks fledge in 42 days


Red-tailed Hawk plumage can be variable, depending on the subspecies and the region. Red-Tailed hawks are 17”–22” long with a wingspan of 44”-53”. They weight 24-46 oz (1 ½ to 3 lbs.) – females are up to 25% larger than males.

Red-tailed Hawks are most often seen soaring high above the ground, looking for food.


The Red-tailed Hawk occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, tropical rainforests, agricultural fields and urban areas.


The Red-tailed Hawk lives throughout the North American continent, in Central America, and in the West Indies. except in areas of unbroken forest or the high arctic. It is legally protected in Canada, Mexico and the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Red-tailed Hawks that breed in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska migrate south in late fall. The winter range stretches from southern Canada south throughout the remainder of the breeding range


Red-tailed Hawks are carnivores and eat small mammals, such as rodent, mice, rabbits, etc. They also eat birds (I was once fortunate enough to witness a Red-tail kill a pigeon  in Troy, NY), reptiles, fish or large insects. They will eat fresh carrion.