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Gilded Flicker

These Woodpeckers are found in Mexico and southwestern parts of the United States.

Once considered a Sonoran Desert subspecies of the Northern Flicker, the Gilded Flicker now has status as a full species. Thought to be non-migratory, the Gilded Flicker occupies cactus forests and is known to frequently forage on the ground.

Perhaps to beat the summer heat of the desert, Gilded Flickers tend to nest earlier in the year than Northern Flickers. While Northern Flickers have been known to live up to 9 years in the wild, there is little data regarding Gilded Flickers.

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Description of the Gilded Flicker


The Gilded Flicker has brownish upperparts with black barring, a white rump and black tail, whitish underparts with black spots, a brown cap, a gray face and throat, and yellow underwings. The male has a red malar stripe.


The female does not have the malar stripe.

Seasonal change in appearance



Similar to adults.


Forests of large cactus plants.


Insects, especially ants.


Forages on the ground.


Resident in the southwestern most U.S. and Mexico.

Related: Types of Woodpeckers in North America

Fun Facts

Hybridization is more rare between Gilded and Red-shafted Flickers than between Red and Yellow-shafted Flickers.

Gilded Flickers nest earlier in the season than Northern Flickers.


A long series of “wik” notes is given, as well as a “klee-yer” call.


Similar Species

  • Northern Flicker
    The Red-shafted form of the Northern Flicker has a similar face pattern, but has reddish underwings.


The nest is in a cavity of a large cactus.

Number: 3-6.
Color: White.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 11-16 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 28 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Gilded Flicker

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Gilded Flicker – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Because Maiherbe’s name was given to the first gilded flicker to be described, and because his type came from the Cape region of Baja California, this race becomes the type race of the species. Its range extends from about latitude 28~ N. to the southern extremity of Baja California. It is about the same size as its nearest relative. to the northward, brunnescens, but is decidedly lighter in coloration. It is smaller than rnearnsi and somewhat darker in coloration.

William Brewster (1902) says of its haunts: “Mr. Belding and Mr. Frazar agree as to the rarity of the Gilded Flicker on the higher mountains, where only a few individuals were seen by the former, and but two (both females, taken on the Sierra de Ia Laguna, April 29) obtained by the latter. The bird’s true home is evidently at the bases of the mountains, and among the foothills extending thence. to the shores of the Pacific on the south and west, and to the Gulf on the east. Throughout this region it is a common species, although not so numerously represented as Melanerpes urop’ygialis. On the arid plains near the coast it breeds in the stems of the giant cactus.”

Griffing Bancroft (1930) says of this species in central Baja California, south of latitude 28~:

The birds are extremely wild, often flushing from a distance of a quarter of a mile. They lay in old cavities and, probably, also in those that are new; scarred sahuaro dries so rapidly that a definite determination on this point was not possible. The nests are usually twenty feet or more above the ground and the cavities are generous; an eight-inch diameter and a two-font depth are not unusual. Occasionally they will use natural openings in the card6n or holes that have been chopped open by honey gatherers.

The flickers lay from early April until well into June. The number of eggs in a clutch is normally three. With the single exception of one set of five we found none larger, and none smaller in which incubation had commenced.

The eggs of the Cape gilded flicker are apparently similar to those of other flickers, except in size. Mr. Bancroft (1930) gives the measurements of 18 eggs as averaging 26.3 by 20.9 millimeters. The measurements of 8 other eggs average 28.49 by 21.15 millimeters; the eggs, in this series, showing the four extremes measure 31.35 by 21.83, 30.15 by 22.22, 25.90 by 20.70, and 26.70 by 20.00 millimeters.

Its habits in general are apparently similar to those the gilded flicker of Arizona, on which more has been published, and the reader is referred to the following account of Colaptes chrysaides mearnsi.

Range: Sonthern Arizona, southeastern California, and northwestern Mexico; nonmigratory.

The range of the gilded flicker extends north to extreme southeastern California (Duncan Flats) ; and southern Arizona (Antelope Peak, Bighug, and the Salt River Bird Reservation). East to southeastern Arizona (Salt River Bird Reservation, Desert Wells, Picacho, Oracle, and Tombstone); central Sonora (Magdalena, Opodepe, Herinosillo, Cedros, and Camoa); and central Sinaloa (Culiacan). South to Sinaloa (Culiacan); and southern Baja California (Cape San Lucas). West to Baja California (Cape San Lucas, Todos Santos, Triunfo, Santa Margarita Island, San Javier, San Quintin, and the Alamo River); and southeastern California (Duncan Flats).

The range as outlined is for the entire species, which has been separated into three geographic races. The typical race, known as the Cape gilded flicker (C. c. chrysoid~s),is found in the Cape district of Baja California and north to about latitude 280 N. The San Fernando flicker (C. c. brunnescen.s) occurs only within a range of two degrees latitude in Baja California (lat. 280 to 300 N.). Mearns’s ailded flicker (C. o. mearnsi) is the race found in the southwestern United States, northwestern Baja California, and the mainland of Mexico.

Egg dates: Arizona: 24 records, April 1 to June 11; 12 records, April 21 to May 2~, indicating the height of the season.

Baja California: 16 records, April 6 to May 20; 8 records, April 10 to May 17.


Mearns’s gilded flicker is the best known of the three races of this handsome species. Its range is along our southwestern border in southwestern Arizona, extreme southeastern California, and in Sonora, Mexico. It is confined almost entirely, especially in the breeding season, to the giant cactus region in this area; its distribution seems to be mainly governed by the distribution of this cactus, on which it seems to depend for most of the necessities of life. M. French Gilman (1915) puts it very well, as follows: “The giant cactus is to this Flicker and the Gila Woodpecker, what the bamboo is to the inhabitants of some of the eastern islands. * * * The cactus furnishes the birds with home, shelter, food and possibly drink. They roost in the holes and seek them as retreat from rain storms.” But he says that this flicker is also “found in cottonwood and willo~v groves as well as wherever the giant cactus grows.”

W. E. D. Scott (1886) writes: “A rather common resident whereever the giant cactus occurs throughout the region, but is much more common in the giant cactus of the southern part of the area under consideration [southern Arizona] than to the northward. They are common all about Tucson in such localities as I have indicated, but are more rare in the San Pedro Valley. I have met with the species in early spring and fall on the San Pedro slope of the Catalinas as high up as 3,000 feet. I have now and then seen single individuals in the mesquite timber, far from any giant cactus. All that I have ever met with breeding have been in giant cactus.”

Nesting: We spent three days, May 21, 22, and 23, 1922, collecting on the giant-cactus plains near Tucson, Ariz., between the mesquite forest to the southward and the Catalina Mountains to the eastward from Tucson. Here we found Mearns’s gilded flicker very common; we climbed to and examined seven nests and probably passed by a number of others. The nests were all in the giant cactus, at heights ranging from 12 to 20 feet from the ground; the only cavity measured was about 24 inches deep. We were rather too late for eggs of this species, as many of the nests held large young, two in each nest examined, never more nor fewer. On May 22 we found a nest containing two fresh eggs and another nest with four addled eggs, probably deserted. At one of the first nests that I examined I was surprised, when I inserted my hand, to feel something cold and clammy; my hand was quickly withdrawn and the hole was chopped out, revealing a large gopher snake that had killed and half swallowed, head first, one of the large young. At another n~t, containing two large young, I shot the adult male for a specimen, after which I found the female dead in a nearby hole, which necessitated taking the two young also. After I had left for home, my companion, Frank C. Willard, took a set of three fresh eggs on June 11, from a nest 14 feet up in a small giant cactus; this was probably a second laying.

Mr. Gilman (1915), who has had considerable experience with this species, writes:

The nests are found in giant cactus, cottonwood and willow, and in that order as to frequency, the giant cactus leading. Nests are in the giant cactus or Saguaro as It is called, far from water, and in cottonwood and willow along the river, on banks of the canals, or even standing In stagnant water pools. Of twenty-seven nests examined, containing eggs or young, twenty-one were in the Saguaro, four in willow, and two in cottonwood. Others were seen In cottonwood but too difficult of access, and many in the cactus were out of reach. If careful count were made I believe about ninety per cent would be found in the cactus. Nests in cottonwood and willow ranged from five to twenty-five feet from the ground, and In Saguaros from eleven to twenty-five or thirty feet. * * *

The entrance to the nest holes varies much, as may be seen from the figures given. The smallest entrance measured 2~4 inches and the largest 434 inches. the shallowest hole was ten inches, and the deepest eighteen inches. * * * The entrance to the eighteen inch hole was three and one-half inches In diameter, and while the ratio is not constant, the shallower holes tend to have smaller entrances, and the deeper holes have larger entrances. * * * From the few measurements taken It may he stated that the bottom of the nest hole is from four and one-half to six inches in diameter. It is hardly correct to use the term diameter, as many of the hole bottoms were not nearly circular, one I measured being four inches one way and six the other. This variation seemed to be governed by the size of the cactus, as in the smaller plants there was not room to excavate a large circular bottom, and it had to be stretched one way.

In the lower Colorado Valley, Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1914) found that “at least two pairs were nesting in dead cottonwood stumps in the drowned-out area of the river bottom. A nesting hole located here was eighteen feet above the ground, in a large stub.” He also mentions the following nests found in the saguaro belt: “On the Arizona side, April 22, excavation sixteen and one-half feet above ground in cactus thirty-one feet high, contained two fresh eggs; April 24, excavation twenty feet above the ground, not investigated. On the California side, April 23, excavation ten and one-third feet above the ground, in cactus twenty-eight feet high, contained on infertile egg and two small young.”

Major Bendire (1895) writes:

It nests at varying distances from the ground from S to 40 feet, generally 43t heights of about 15 feet. I have the indurated form of a nesting cavity of this species now before me, showing its exact shape. The hardened walls are about one-fourth of an inch thick, and show the inner contour of the cavity perfectly. The entrance is nearly 3 inches in diameter; inside it is about 7 by 4 inches wide and 5’/2 inches deep. The sides and bottom of the cavity are quite smooth, considering the nature of the substance (the soft inner pulp of the cactus) out of which it is excavated. It occupied only onehalf of the trunk of one of these giant cacti, and the rear of the cavity did not quite reach the center of the plant. The eggs lay on the hardened floor, and not, as usual, on a layer of chips. I am inclined to believe that a freshly excavated nesting site is not habitable for some weeks, as it must require some time for the exuding sap to harden. The mold before me somewhat resembles a wasp’s nest, both in color and shape, and if suspended from the limb of a tree might easily be mistaken for one.

Eggs: As to tile number of eggs laid by the gilded flicker, Mr. Gilman (1915) writes: “Of the twenty-seven nests examined, eight had five eggs, or young plus eggs, to make count of five for the set; eleven had four eggs or young, or young plus eggs; six nests contained three eggs or three young; and two nests had two young each. In no case did I find five young in a nest, and from the fact that infertile eggs were found with three and four young in a nest, it may be inferred that in many of the nests containing two, three or four young, more eggs had been laid. In no nest did I find more than five eggs, and I conclude that the set is from three to five eggs.”

The gilded flicker evidently lays fewer eggs than its northern and eastern relatives, and the surprising thing is that there are so many cases of infertile eggs, often one and sometimes two in a set. I have had sets of six and seven eggs reported in collections, but these may have been products of two females, where nesting holes were scarce or the region overcrowded by the many birds that use these holes. The few eggs that I have seen are like other flickers’ eggs but either dull white or only slightly glossy; this may not be the universal rule, however. The measurements of 50 eggs average 27.86 by 21.34 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 32.0 by 22.0, 27.78 by 22.22, and 24.61 by 20.04 millimeters.

Plumages: Mr. Gilman (1915) says: “The young when first hatched are not very prepossessing to any one, except perhaps the parents. At first glance they remind one of the pictured restoration of the Plesiosaurus, with their long twisting naked necks. The lower mandible was more than an eighth of an inch longer than the upper, and on the tip of each was the hard white growth used in opening the shell.”

In the juvenal plumage, which is acquired before the young bird leaves the nest, the young male is similar to the adult male, but the forehead is usually tinged with dark red; the red malar patch is duller and less uniform; the upper parts are grayer, less brownish, and more heavily barred; the primaries are tipped with brownish white; the under parts are grayish white, more profusely, but less distinctly, spotted; the black patch on the breast is smaller and more central; the yellow in the wings and tail is duller; the black tips on the under side of the tail are duller and not so well defined; and the bill is much smaller and weaker. The young female is similar to the young male, but there is no red in the crown or in the malar patches, the latter being pale brown.

I have not seen enough material, taken at the proper seasons, to work out the molts, but these are probably the same as in other flickers.

Several apparent hybrids with eafer have been reported. Dr. Grinnell (1914), who has made a study of this subject, seems to doubt if there is any hybridizing between these species; he writes:

The salient fact shown by this comparative examination Is that in all other charactcr8 the specimens aberrant in colors of wing and tail, are perfectly typical of chrpsoidea (that is, of its subspecies mearnsi). None of the phenomena consequent upon hybridization is evidenced in other particulars, such as general size, proportional dimensions, extent of dorsai barring, colors of body and head. In all these characters there is no nearer approach of the red-shafted chrysoides to colons, than of the yello~v-shafted ch,-ysoides.

My conclusion is that the strain of chry8oides occurring at the present time in the lower Colorado Valley shows proneness to replacement of yellow by red, without there having been any interbreeding with another species. This may be accounted for chemico-physiologically, as in the case of the linnet of the hawaiian Islands, where, however, the change has been from red to yellow.

* * * It is quite evident that the aberrant examples described by Brewster and Swarth from central Arizona, as referred to above, are of the same nature as the Colorado Valley specimens. The chances are that they were not hybrids. So far as shown by the literature at hand, no unquestioned hybrids have been found between chrvsoides (or any of its subspecies) and colleris or cefer.

Food: The food of Mearns’s gilded flicker seems to be much like that of the other flickers, including ants and various other insects and such wild fruits and berries as are available in its territory. Dr. Grinnell (1914) reports that the stomachs of two birds, taken in the Colorado Valley, “bad their gullets distended with a mass of small black ants and ant larvae.” Mr. Gilman (1915) says:

They resort regularly to the Indian coracribs and are seen in corn fields though I have never noticed them actually engaged on an ear of green corn as I have the Gilas. They probably attack the green corn but are quiet about the work Instead of advertising their presence. They eat largely of the cactus fruit and possibly of the pulp at certain lean seasons. They are very fond of watermelon, and eat freely of it when it is placed on bird tables or on the ground In shade of tree or shed. They appear to feed frequently on the ground in the way the red-shafted does, and are probably after ants most of the time. I have seen them at work on an ant hill and even pecking into the ground after the insects.

Behavior: The same writer says on this subject:

The Gilded Flickers are much quieter than the Guns, and are not so much in evidence around homes, though they do not appear to he very timid. Tbey are simply less sociable I presume. * *

They are peaceable and impress me as being eminently practical and matter of fact. Each one minds his own business and seems willing to live and let live. They do not assemble in numbers as the Gilas do sometimes, but are solitary or in pairs. They have the same habit of pecking the walls of buildings as have the red-shafted flickers, and one has worked spasmodically at the shingled gable of the school house here for the past three years. I take It to be the same Individual, for he is rather tame and roosts each night above one of the window casings. * *

They are not close sitters, and usually leave the nest before the tree is reached or the ladder placed against the trunk. As soon as an intruder’s footsteps become audible the landlady pokes her head from the entrance, and soon after departs, never giving opportunity for capturing her on the nest.

Voice: The gilded flicker apparently possesses as good a vocabulary as any other flicker, uttering practically all the varied notes common to the genus, but evidently it is not quite so noisy as its relatives. Mr. Gilman (1915) thinks that its notes are “not so frequent nor quite so loud” as those of the red-shafted flicker.

Field marks: The gilded flicker can be recognized easily as a flicker by the characteristic markings of the genus, by its flight and by its voice. It looks like an eastern flicker with a red malar patch (in the male) instead of a black one, and with no red crescent on the nape in either sex. It looks like a pale red-shafted flicker with yellow, instead of red, in the wings and tail. Its smaller size is hardly noticeable in the field.


The gilded flicker of middle Baja California, between latitude 280 and latitude 3O~ N., is a well-marked subspecies. A. W. Anthony (1895b), naming it, characterized it as “differing from C. chryaoide& in darker upper parts and slightly smaller size.” He says further: “It would be quite natural to expect specimens of Colaptes from the northern half of Lower California to be more or less intermediate between those of Arizona and Cape St. Lucas. They are, however, further removed from the type form from the Cape than are those from Arizona and northern Mexico, and in the series I have examined the Arizona skins are exactly intermediate in the color of the upper parts betwen a series from Cape St. Lucas and my skins from San Fernando.”

Ridgway (1914) describes brumnes.een.s as “similar to C. c. chry8OideS, but coloration decidedly darker and browner, color of pileum more rufescent (russet, or between russet and mars brown, in typical specimens), immaculate area of rump more restricted (sometimes whole rump spotted with black), wing and tail averaging shorter, and bill longer.”

Mr. Anthony wrote to Major Bendire (1895) : “The Gilded Flicker is rather common in the heavy growth of giant cactus, Cereus pringlei, but not adverse to the candlewood forests which cover a large part of the peninsula between latitudes 280 and 33o~~~ The general habits of this flicker do not seem to differ from those of the species elsewhere.

The eggs of the San Fernando flicker are similar to those of the preceeding subspecies. Griffing Bancroft (1930) gives the average measurements of 24 eggs as 27.1 by 21.3 mi1limeters. I have the measurements of 5 others, which average 28.9 by 22.1 millimeters.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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