Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tongue of a flicker

The entrance to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, one of the country's best such museums. If you haven't been, put it on your itinerary.

Last Friday night marked the kickoff of the museum's annual Explorer Series of lectures, and I was honored to be the inaugural speaker. Beforehand, the Native Plant Society of Northeast Ohio had their annual meeting, above. I am a longtime member of this group, and sat in. What a cool room to have a meeting in! The surrounding dioramas depict various North American ecosystems. It takes a long time to fully inspect the contents of this place, visit the planetarium, and do everything else that there is to do.

About 260 people attended the evening lecture, and I gave a program about some of the best remaining natural areas in the state, including one in the Cleveland region. There's a wonderful slate of upcoming Explorer Series programs; if you live in the area or want to devise an interesting trip, consider attending one of the lectures and touring the museum beforehand. The sensational Cleveland Museum of Art is only a few minute's walk away, too.

Bright and early the next morning, Andy Jones and I led a bird/nature walk at Dike 14, on the shores of the Cleveland lakefront. Dike 14 is a large former dredging impoundment - the perimeter is a mile long - that has now reverted to a wild state and can be fabulous for birding in migration. That's the distant downtown Cleveland skyline as we look west from the dike.

Fifty-two people sjowed up at 7:30 for our hike - quite a crowd when you're trying to ferret out furtive fall warblers! All told, several hundred people visited Dike 14 this day, as it isn't normally open to the public, at least not yet. There would have been many more visitors, no doubt, but the skies opened around 9:30 and it really poured. Up until then, it was great and we had a number of warblers and other migrants, some interesting insects, lots of plants, and even a few snakes.

Here's Andy, quizzing folks about a very distinctive set of feathers. We later saw the rest of the bird.

And here it is, a recently perished Northern Flicker, one of the most beautiful woodpeckers in the world, especially up close and personal like this. It's a shame that the flicker met its demise, but it also opened up a great learning opportunity.

The specimen was fresh enough that Andy could easily unfurl the flicker's remarkable tongue, which puts even Gene Simmons to shame. Woodpeckers have what is essentially a spool that the they wind their tongue around, as said tongue can extend several times the length of their long, chisel-like bills.

The tip of a woodpecker tongue is armed with small barbules, or little prongs, although they don't show up in this photo. This adaptation allows the bird to rapidly flick its tongue into deep crevices and snare small insects, then rapidly pull them back into their mouth. Flickers are often seen on the ground, as they are inveterate ant hunters. One specimen which was dissected had about 5,000 ants in its stomach! A long barbed tongue is a huge asset if you are a bird that wants to lap up massive numbers of ants.

Thanks to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Dike 14 Committee, and Ohio State Parks for making these events possible.


Heather said...

Wow, that's a very cool-looking museum. But that Flicker... wow! Were there any clues as to what caused its demise? I see what looks like blood on its tongue, which doesn't seem like a good sign.

Anonymous said...

There was a dead flicker tonight outside the church where my kids go to boy scout meetings in Avon Lake. What a strange coincidence. It was along side a paved trail in the grass. I don't think it was close enough to the church to have been a window strike. Maybe it was exhaustion from crossing the lake.

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Heather,

We don't know what brought that flicker down for sure, but speculate that it could have been an aerial strike by a Cooper's Hawk or some such feathered missile. Whatever the cause, it probably met a traumatic ending, a so many birds do.


Anonymous said...

What is it with Flicker carcasses? This was years ago - and thankfully I rarely find dead birds - but I once took the remains of a Flicker out of a trashcan on East Broad St and carried it to my desk in the Rhodes Tower. Long story, but it had to do with Falcon Watch. (And I couldn’t look at the tongue because the body was sans head.)

Also, at home yesterday I received a ‘rare’ report from the hammock describing what must have been a Flicker passing through, at the same time we had a small flock of Cedar Waxwings. Would these be coming down from Canada?

I have one more thing to say: Gross!! Abuse of a corpse!

Thank you,
Mephitis bucca