Female Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Female Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

As a child, I was a product of the Saturday morning cartoon era…it was, in fact, the highlight of my week. If I didn’t watch Looney Tunes, it just wasn’t a good Saturday. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner were my favorite characters, but a close second was Woody Woodpecker. I guess you could say that everything I knew about woodpeckers I learned on Saturday mornings: I was convinced that all woodpeckers had a red head like Woody and that they all pecked incessantly on trees, to the annoyance of every human within earshot.

In actuality, there are many different types of woodpeckers, and they don’t all look or even act the same. (Rumor has it, by the way, that Woody was modeled after the Pileated Woodpecker.) The all-woodpeckers-are-the-same stereotype was blown for me the day I discovered and fell into deep like with the Northern Flicker, a soft gray-brown, spotted bird more closely resembling a dove than a feathered drill bit.

Not everyone is a fan of the flicker. A quick search on Google will reveal plenty of ticked off homeowners plotting the demise of one or more of these birds for having pecked holes in the sides of their houses. In my yard, they’re quite content to just eat suet when not looking for ants in the ground, though they’ve been known — once in a while — to wake me up during warmer months by pecking on the roof above my bedroom.

While the Northern Flicker’s habitat stretches across North America, the species can be separated into two distinct types, and possibly a third. Northern Flickers are called “Red-shafted” in the west but “Yellow-shafted” in the east. (Read below for an explanation of this.) They hybridize (interbreed) in an area that stretches from Alaska to Texas, producing offspring that have traits of both western and eastern Northern Flickers. Click here to read about the beautiful hybridized Northern Flicker that visited my suet feeder some time back. That was a very cool treat, indeed.

The following information is taken from my book, Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Read on to learn more about the Northern Flicker:

Species: Colaptes auratus

Size and markings: The Northern Flicker is 12-14 inches long with a wingspan of 17-21 inches. The markings of the western variety, the Red-shafted Northern Flicker, are different from those of its eastern counterpart, the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. On our side of the country, males will have red malars (moustaches), but the females do not. In the East, both males and females will have a red crescent on the back of the neck. In the West, northern flickers have red flashing under the wings and tail feathers, while in the East, that same flashing is yellow. Other marks are the same, such as the brown-gray coloring, the obvious black bib, the white underside spotted with black, and the black barring on the back, wings, and tail.

Food: While the Northern Flicker is not a typical feeder visitor in summer months, it will visit available suet feeders. You’re also likely to see it on the ground where it will search for insects and other invertebrates, such as slugs and snails. It will also peck the ground to get at ants and their larvae, much like other woodpeckers will do to tree bark.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: The Northern Flicker will nest in any large cavity in a dead tree but will also use an artificial nesting box.

Number of broods per year: 1-4

Number of eggs per brood: 1-8

Migratory pattern: This bird is a year-round resident in most of the lower 48 states and southern Canada. Some flickers, however, will move south for the winter and fly farther north into Canada and Alaska for summer breeding.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Expect to see the beautiful Northern Flicker at any time if you have a suet feeder. It’s also more likely to visit seed feeders in the winter months when the insect population isn’t as plentiful.

Want to attract Northern Flickers to your yard? Order Pacific Northwest Birds’ Peanut Butter Suet here.

Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

It was suddenly quiet…eerily so. Both the area around the feeders and the branches of our Japanese maple were like an avian ghost town, without a songbird to be seen. My eyes quickly scanned the area before landing on the culprit: a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk sitting conspicuously on my little cedar bridge before flapping up to the edge of the birdbath, obviously still needing to learn why stealth matters.

Speaking of stealth, I became the poster child for it. I slunk from my seat near the window, dropped to the floor so as not to scare him away, and did a ninja-roll to the kitchen counter where the camera sat. I grabbed it, did the whole routine in reverse back to the window, raised the camera up to the glass pane, and began clicking.

What…? It’s all true! Okay, it’s all true…except for the ninja-roll across the floor. (I actually crawled like a clumsy baby but we don’t need to go into that.)

At any rate, he hung around just long enough to figure out he wasn’t getting breakfast in my yard, but thankfully long enough for me to get about six shots before he flew away. Of the six, only one turned out, but it wasn’t too bad. He was small and blended in with the background, so I did have to enhance this photo just a bit in order to see him more clearly:

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Beautiful, isn’t he? And here’s an adult:

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo credit: PBodig on CanStockPhoto

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo credit: PBodig

Read on to learn more about this small but fierce predator.

Scientific name: Accipiter striatus

Size and markings: A raptor (bird of prey) very similar in appearance to the Cooper’s Hawk, the Sharpie is smaller. I won’t go into all the differences here because it would take too long, but if you’re super curious about what makes them different, do a Google search for “Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks” and then click on “images” at the top of the search results. The Sharpie is 9.5-14″ long and is slim rather than stocky. The young hawk I saw in my yard was about the size of a Steller’s Jay, but with a longer tail. Its tail is square-tipped and its wings are short and rounded. Juveniles, like the one above, have yellow eyes, are brown on the wings, back, and head (with some white mixed in), and have vertical barring on the chest. The adult also has chest barring, but the markings are heavier and appear to be more horizontal. Also setting the adult apart from the juvenile is the slate-gray coloring on head, back, and wings. Tail is striped and squared, as mentioned above, and its eyes are orange. Sexes are similar, but females are larger than males.

Food: The Sharp-shinned Hawk is an accipiter, otherwise known as a “bird hawk.” It’s main source of food is other birds, though it will also eat small mammals. Backyard bird feeders, unfortunately, are key sources of food for this hawk.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Accipiters like the Sharp-shinned Hawk prefer wooded areas. If you live in or near a wooded area like I do, your chances of seeing one of these beautiful birds at some point are pretty high.

Number of broods per year: 1

Number of eggs per brood: Usually 3-5, but possibly up to 8

Migratory pattern: The Sharpie is a year-round resident throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, but is also known to migrate, spending summers as far north as Alaska and wintering as far south as Central America.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Possibly any, but they obviously aren’t there for the seeds.


Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit: Unknown

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo credit: Unknown

(After a brief hiatus, our Bird of the Week feature returns today.)

It’s second nature to me, whenever I pass my dining room window, to take a quick peek to see which birds are visiting the feeders. Do you do that, too? It was only a couple of weeks ago, if that, that I realized I hadn’t seen my usual Red-breasted Nuthatch in a while. You know how it is: If all of the usual criminals aren’t hanging out together, it’s just not as much fun. The chickadees, juncos, jays, and other sparrows and finches were there, but no nuthatch. It wasn’t long afterward, however, that he started showing up again, first on the sunflower seed feeder…but just briefly, before hanging from the suet basket, where he was happily eating upside down.

Funny how the return of a much-loved little bird can make everything feel a little more settled. It was as if he was saying, “Okay, I’m back…fall can begin!”

Read on to learn more about the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Scientific name: Sitta canadensis

Size and markings: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is 4-4.5 inches long with a wingspan of 8 inches. Its sides and belly are rufous (rust-colored), giving this very small bird its name. A black stripe covers its crown, and a black eye stripe gives it a mask-like appearance. Its eyebrow, cheeks, and throat are white. The upperparts and short tail are gray. Bill is long and slightly upturned. Sexes are similar.

Food: Insects, spiders, and larvae make up the main diet of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, who looks for its food on or under tree bark. It is also drawn to feeders that offer sunflower seeds or suet.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Mainly found in forests at higher elevations, the Red-breasted Nuthatch can also be convinced to come to feeders in suburban areas where sunflower seeds and suet are offered. This bird will hollow out its own nest cavity in a conifer or snag and then smear the entrance with pitch. Whether hunting for insects on a tree or pulling a sunflower seed from a feeder, it will typically do so facing head down.

Number of broods per year: 1

Number of eggs per brood: 2-8

Migratory pattern: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a year-round resident of the Pacific Northwest. Some migration does occur, but has been known to happen irregularly on alternate years.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Any.

The above information was taken from Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds.

Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

On suet-making days, when I’ve got everything melting together in a pan on top of the stove, each member of my family, one-by-one, will saunter nonchalantly into the kitchen. Soon comes the sly, “Whatcha makin’? Smells like peanut butter fudge.”

Disappointment ensues when they find out that not only is it not fudge, but it isn’t for them at all. It’s peanut butter suet, and it’s for the backyard birds who’ve become spoiled enough to depend on it during cooler weather. Or even demand it, like the resident Northern Flickers who absolutely relish it.

Some time back, I decided to facilitate a taste test between my suet and some that was store-bought. (Both were peanut butter flavored.) Knowing my suet was fresh, fragrant, and even a little softer and easier to eat, I had a feeling I already knew which suet would win (ahem…mine), but gave it a go anyway. Here are a few photos to illustrate how the test went.

Order here: Pacific Northwest Birds Peanut Butter Suet

I’d added raisins to this particular batch of suet, but my mistake was mixing them in whole and not chopped. The birds seemed to pick around them and were more interested in the seeds, peanuts, and the suet dough itself. But, whole raisins or not, you can see which suet the birds preferred. The store-bought suet is on the left and mine is on the right. It’s been a while since I took these, but if I remember right, all of the photos were taken over a two week period, though the time frame may have been shorter.

#1 -- Hard to tell, but both suet baskets contain approximately the same amount of suet (by weight). The baskets are the same size.

#2 -- They've been chipping away at my suet and all but ignoring the store-bought.

#3 -- Whoa...almost gone!

#4 -- BAM! Loser concedes. We have a winner!

Somewhere in the middle of that, I forgot to take another photo, but you get the idea. The birds preferred the suet on the right.

Making your own suet is a fun and rewarding project. Check out this recipe to try it yourself. Or, if you’d rather not bother, you can purchase it directly from Pacific Northwest Birds. All of my suet is made in small batches to ensure quality and then frozen until shipment. The recipe I use for this suet is slightly different than the one at the link, as I changed it up just a bit to ensure stability and consistency. Each block of suet weighs about a pound or more…much larger than those little suet cakes you’ll find at the store. The suet on the right in the photos above is not representative of the much-larger suet blocks available for purchase.

Whether you buy it or make your own, you’ll most likely attract some or all of these birds: Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Spotted Towhees, Steller’s Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pileated Woodpeckers, Bushtits, and Northern Flickers. I have a feeling I’m forgetting one or two. Oh, that’s right — and European Starlings, which I don’t appreciate due to their ability to hog and demolish the suet block within just a few days. (I’ve been known to take the suet down until the starlings have forgotten about it.)


Read more about our peanut butter suet here.


Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Hands down, this is the most personal post I’ve ever written for the Pacific Northwest Birds blog. I’ve been thinking of telling my story for quite some time, and now…with October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month…here we go!

If you’re wondering what kind of connection October, breast cancer, and birds could possibly have to each other, look no further than yours truly. I was diagnosed in August of 2011 with HER2+/ER-/PR- invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 3b. It had already gone to my lymph nodes, which is what put me so close to a stage 4.

This was followed by just over five months of chemo, which was followed by a double mastectomy, which was followed by several weeks of radiation therapy, which was followed – over the next two years – by about 12 more surgeries, the most recent (and last…finally) being two weeks ago. Sadly, about a month after starting chemo, I lost my wonderful dad to complications from a heart attack. The same week we lost him, I almost lost my own fight, and was hospitalized with a white blood cell count of almost zero. (The chemo that was zapping the tumors almost took me out, too.)

Saying that it was a very rough time seems to be putting it lightly. But it’s amazing – and this is something I discovered for myself while in the trenches – how much strength we can find inside ourselves when we really have to. I knew instinctively going in that whether or not I won this battle depended in large part on my attitude and outlook. That doesn’t discount everything my wonderful team of doctors did for me, but the will to live is a real thing.

Besides my attitude, it helped immensely to remember that God has the final word, not the doctors, and that I didn’t have an expiration date stamped on my forehead. In fact, I never asked my oncologist how much time he thought I had with this particular cancer, because I didn’t want a time frame stuck in my mind.

But what does my breast cancer diagnosis have to do with birds and this blog? Everything. One of my favorite movies, Secretariat, also has one of my favorite quotes: “Work is good for grief.” That’s true. After chemo, I was still deeply grieving for my dad, and had my remaining treatments and surgeries looming large on the horizon. I wanted something tangible that I could focus on. I’d heard many success and business coaches say to do what you love (in fact, you may have heard the well-known quote, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”), so I asked myself what that meant for me: What was it I liked to do? What was my hobby?

Coming up with that answer was easy: Birding.

I loved watching, feeding, and learning about birds…wild, native species, that is. (I’ve always felt bad for birds kept in cages.) And so, in March of 2012, right around the time of my mastectomy, Pacific Northwest Birds was born. It has grown by leaps and bounds since then…and hopefully will even more now that I’m done with my surgeries…and I am thoroughly enjoying writing about the beautiful birds of the Pacific Northwest and getting to know you all. Thank you, everyone, for being a part of this!

One memory that really sticks out to me from 2012 is the Indian summer we had. I spent quite a few days sitting outside that October, soaking up the sun for as long as it lasted, writing in my journal, and listening to and watching the birds in the trees and at my feeders. What a time of inner healing that was, to be able to sit and connect with nature as I was also healing on the outside. Now, more than three years since my diagnosis, it’s wonderful to look back and see how far I’ve come.

I’m a survivor: I fought like a girl and am here to tell the tale. Knowing how many women are fighting now or have even lost their fight, that isn’t something I say lightly. I am grateful beyond words that I am able to sit here and write about it. I am grateful, in fact, for each breath I take.

So with it being October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a great time to give to breast cancer research or to help out in another way. If you have a favorite breast cancer-related charity to give to, please do. On the other hand, if you don’t know where to give, I highly recommend giving to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, one of the top-rated cancer centers in the U.S. and also where I received my care. You may give of your finances, your time, or by donating Christmas gifts, books, magazines, healthy snacks, and more. Check out this link for more information: SCCA: How to help.

And, of course, there’s the old standby of simply paying it forward. We were greatly helped (“greatly” is an understatement) in many ways during my cancer treatments by caring family, friends, and complete strangers, and now I’m in the pay-it-forward mode, too. Imagine what a great world this would be if we all did that a little more often.

This post would not be complete without a reminder to get yourself checked, too — and I’m not just speaking to the girls here. Breast cancer isn’t just a women’s disease, as men can also be diagnosed with it. Recent statistics I’ve seen say one in eight women will get breast cancer during their lifetime. With men it’s much lower, about one in 1,000, but high enough to warrant getting that checkup.

Thanks for reading and for allowing me to temporarily steer away from our usual fare here on the blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share my story…which is also Pacific Northwest Birds’ story…with all of you. Has focusing on birds (or another aspect of nature) helped you through a hard time, too? If so, please share your story in the comments below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.


Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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