Patient of the Week: Northern Flicker Collides with Window in NW Portland

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

On March 4, we received this female Northern Flicker from NW Portland. She had hit a window, and was found on the good Samaritan’s deck, alert, but unable to fly. Upon examination at our Wildlife Care Center, we noted signs of head trauma including limb weakness and an abnormally dull affect, as well as a swollen shoulder. We were able to immediately start her on fluids and anti-inflammatory medication for the pain and swelling. However, we needed to know more about what was going on with the bird’s shoulder, so once she was stabilized, we put her under anesthesia for screening X-rays.

Northern Flicker being treated in our Wildlife Care Center
The Northern Flicker receiving an assisted feeding from staff. The bird’s head trauma and weakness are currently preventing it from eating on its own, so we use this technique to make sure it receives the nutrition it needs to survive until it can self-feed.

Radiographs allow us to make sure there are no internal fractures or injuries that we could not see or feel during our initial examination of the patient. Birds that hit windows often have broken or dislocated coracoid and/or clavicle bones, which are bones in the chest that provide support to the shoulders and allow birds to fly. Luckily we did not find any further damage to her shoulder, and she will likely recover from the soft tissue trauma. Her prognosis is guarded because she continues to display symptoms of head trauma as well, but we are doing everything we can to make her recovery successful. Right now this includes supporting her nutritionally while she’s too weak to eat on her own, pain medication, fluids, and privacy so she is not experiencing additional fear and stress. While some head and spinal trauma cases recover well, they often take a very long time to heal. It will likely be at least several weeks before we know whether this flicker will fully recover from her injuries.

The Northern Flicker under anesthesia as we take x-rays. The bird’s wings are held spread out by tape so we can see all of the internal structures and bones. Our patients come in a variety of sizes, so we often get creative to create a home-made anesthesia face mask that fits them!

Northern Flicker’s are fairly large woodpeckers, mostly gray and brown with a black barred pattern on their back, a black crescent shaped “bib,” and black scalloped spots on their underside. They have a long down-curved bill, strong claws, a long stiff tail that tapers to a point, and if it’s a male, red “mustaches.” When in flight, you may also notice their bright white rump, or the flash of colorful wings and tail feather shafts–which are red in the Western U.S. and yellow in the Eastern U.S., but both subspecies occur here in the Pacific Northwest. These beautiful birds are common, able to live in and around the edges of fields, woodlands, and forests.

Unlike other woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker spends a lot of time on the ground. There, it uses its long, slightly curved bill to probe into the soil and rotting wood, searching for ants, beetles, and grubs. They also eat other invertebrates like flies, butterflies, moths, and snails, and in the winter, will eat berries and seeds as well. Like other woodpeckers, their tongues wrap around their skull, ending near the back of their eye sockets, which allows their tongue to dart out ~2 inches beyond their beak! The Northern Flicker’s tongue is also coated in sticky saliva thanks to large salivary glands, making it the perfect mechanism for extracting/lapping up ants, their favorite food.

Having A Problem With A Northern Flicker?

A frequent dispute between humans and woodpeckers is drumming behavior. Like most woodpeckers, Northern Flickers drum on objects as a form of communication in courtship and territory defense. In the spring, male Northern Flickers establish nesting territories by drumming on wood or other hard surfaces, the goal being to make as loud a noise as possible. In urban and suburban areas, this can include home siding, shingles, or gutters.

Changing or avoiding behavior like this involves muffling the noise the woodpecker can generate from your house and/or providing alternatives to drum on. Muffling the sounds might involve using material like burlap, canvas, foam rubber, or heavy plastic on the spot in question. You can also apply metal flashing on problem areas, which is smooth so woodpeckers can’t perch on it, and also changes the sound to be less desirable. You can also put up an even better drumming spot in the form of “Woodpecker Bongos” to try to redirect the behavior. Even better, leaving dead or decaying trees and snags in place provides good habitat and a natural drumming option for Northern Flickers, as well as other woodpeckers and wildlife–making them less likely to investigate your house for their needs.

Northern Flicker, photo by Jerry McFarland.

It’s important to know that there can be other reasons woodpeckers might peck at your house. Drumming is common, but usually seasonal and generally doesn’t cause much damage. Feeding, on the other hand, is more damaging and often indicates an underlying problem. Woodpeckers drill for insects that live in compromised and rotting wood, so if a woodpecker is feeding on your house, it may be alerting you to an insect infestation, water damage, or other serious issue you will want to address. Nesting is another possibility; as woodpeckers create cavities in the spring and fall to nest in. Leaving snags in place so woodpeckers have natural places to nest in can help prevent this issue, and so can putting up nest boxes (which can be made or bought at our Nature Store).

Why Do Birds Hit Windows? And How Can I Help?

  • Birds cannot see glass and don’t perceive it as a barrier. That means they can’t see that it is blocking their way, and sometimes will fly into it because they see the reflection of trees or the sky and think it’s a continuation of habitat, not a solid barrier. Because of this they often fly at full speed straight into our windows. While a few birds are lucky enough to only be stunned for a short time, nearly half of the birds will die on impact. Many others suffer injuries such as neurological damage, fractured bones, eye trauma, internal bleeding, or air sac ruptures. Without intervention, these birds die of their injuries or become easy prey for predators.
  • Nearly half of all window strikes happen at residential homes, most commonly within the first 3-4 stories of a building. As Portland grows, the risks to birds also increase. You can minimize the incidence of window strikes at your home or business by making your windows visible to birds. There are lots of approaches and options that work well, click here for more tips regarding DIY solutions, naturescaping, and window treatments.

What to Do If A Bird Hits Your Window

  • Observe from afar at first so as to not stress the bird further. Some window strike victims recover quickly and are just “stunned.” However, in this state, the bird may be vulnerable to predators. If possible, you can gently cover the bird with a towel, and place them in a shoebox or other container you can secure, then place them somewhere quiet and safe.
  • Wait 1 hour, then attempt to open the box outdoors. Hopefully the bird will be alert and be able to fly away. Do not try to throw the bird to get it to fly; this can cause more injuries than they initially had. If you did not contain the animal, check back in an hour or two to see if it’s in the same area.
  • If the bird doesn’t fly away, the best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water.
  • Take action to prevent further injuries at that window!

Here at Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center, we accept new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email and one of our wildlife solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation.


Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to operate our Wildlife Care Center this past year with about 20% of our normal staffing and with about a 25% increase in our annual patient admissions. We were left with the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue providing follow-up updates on patients brought into our center so that we could focus on the daily care of the animals. And while we simply cannot write a story about each animal, our goal for this fresh and bright new year is to show you what we can: in the form of a weekly patient update! Check in every Thursday for our “Patient of the Week”; with information on the species, the circumstances that brought the animal in, and preventative advice so you can be a better steward for our wildlife!

If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your support helps us save lives.