Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Flicker eating grapes

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus, snacking on the fruit of our most common species of grape, the Riverbank Grape, Vitis riparia.

While taking a brief ramble through a very urban patch today, I heard the piercing KYEEER of a flicker, and looked up to see one of these odd woodpeckers alight high in a tangle of grapevines. It would be difficult to purposely design a more extravagant bird than a Northern Flicker. They are outrageous, with bold leopard spotting below, and the barring of a tiger above. A big black smudge straddles the upper chest, as if someone smeared cinders on the bird. Males sport a conspicuous black mustache (technically a malar stripe); the bird in these photos is a female and thus, appropriately, lacks the mustache.

However, as complex and interesting as all of these details of plumage are, it's when the flicker takes wing that the real impression is made. The underwings and bottom side of the tail are brilliant golden-yellow, and the effect of this bright burst of color is nearly jarring. The overall package of a flicker provided one of ornithology's most far-reaching transformational experiences. Back in 1929, an inquisitive youth, aged 11, spotted what he thought was a dead bird on the ground. Sneaking closer, the kid was no doubt struck by the flicker's gorgeous tones of fawn, and the ornate combination of spots and bars.

Creeping a bit closer, he suddenly violated the bird's space, and with a flash, the "dead" bird exploded to life in a blur of gold and brown and in so doing, seared an unshakable impression into the young Roger Tory Peterson's mind. His experience with the flicker stoked an unquenchable desire to learn everything possible about birds, resulting in the first true field guide and a legacy that will likely never be matched in birding circles.

One might make the case that few birds are as interesting or as important as flickers. While a woodpecker, they act quite unwoodpeckerlike. Peterson may well have caught his "spark bird" in the act of anting. Flickers are quite smitten with the energetic little bundles of formic acid, and spend much time on the ground tearing into ant mounds and rasping the insects out with a long barbed tongue. When need be, they'll shift to a diet of berries - proof above - or whatever else might be handy, including the seed in your bird feeder. Someone even posted a note to the Ohio Birds listserv today about a flicker that she had seen foraging amongst squirrel dreys - the globular arboreal leafy nests that fox and gray squirrels construct.

Like all good woodpeckers, flickers bore nest holes into trees, and this habit makes them a "keystone" species. Second tenants of flicker cavities include a wide range of cavity-nesting songbirds and even mammals such as flying squirrels.

Travel far enough west, and you'll encounter Northern Flickers with bright salmon-colored underwings and tail, a striking contrast to the golden tones of our eastern birds. Until 1973, they were considered distinct species: "yellow-shafted", and "red-shafted". However, a considerable amount of crossing takes place in the overlap zone, causing ornithologists to lump the two, but nonetheless the flicker remains an interesting case study in evolution.

As if all of this isn't enough, perhaps no North American bird has been bestowed with as many colloquial names as has the flicker. Here are just a smattering: High-hole; harry-wicket; yellowhammer; and wake-up. In all, the flicker has been branded with over 100 name tags.

In what is clearly one of the more sophisticated choices of state symbols, the state of Alabama selected this wonderful bird as their representative. Bravo!



Randy Kreager said...

Always been one of my favorites! I had never heard the RTP story before. Thanks, as usual, for a great article!

Helen Ostermiller said...

One Ohio birder suggested that the Flicker in the squirrel dreys may have been seeking acorns/nuts. Do you know if squirrels store nuts in their nests?

Jim McCormac said...

I don't think squirrels do store nuts in their dreys, but I'm not certain of that. My hunch is the flicker was after insects. Squirrel dreys stay much warmer than the outside air temperature when the residents are home, and that may allow for localized insect survival. Just a hunch, though.