Skip to main content

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!
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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Pinching Beetle, a rather brutish looking bug

The world is awash in beetles, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Few of them can match the intimidation factor of a Pinching Beetle, Lucanus capreolus, though. Those formidable looking mandibles look like they could slice off a finger.

Today was one of those coolly diverse days. I started off down in Fayette County, visiting the farm of a friend. He has restored about 25 acres of wetlands, and the response by the animal community has been nothing short of phenomenal. Blizzards of dragonflies of many species, amphibians galore, and nesting Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, and Sora. Among MANY other things. And all in a short two years. Add water and they will come.

Then, working my way home, I ducked into a Madison County cemetery that has a thriving population of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels, and shot images of our native prairie dog. Then, I stopped at a spot along Little Darby Creek, waded on in, and procured some pretty nice shots of various stream bluets and dancers. …

Calliope Hummingbird in central Ohio!

A hatch-year male Calliope Hummingbird strikes a pose. Small but tough, the hummingbird was feeding actively yesterday in 39 F temperatures. It frequents feeders and gardens at a home in Delaware County, Ohio, about a half-hour north of Columbus.

Fortunately, the wayward hummer appeared at the home of Tania and Corey Perry. Tania is a birder, and knew right away that the hummingbird was something special. For a while, the identification was up in the air, which isn't surprising. The Calliope Hummingbird used to be placed in its own genus, Stellula, but has recently been submerged into the genus Selasphorus, which includes Allen's, Broad-tailed, and Rufous hummingbirds. The latter two, especially, are quite similar to the Calliope in subadult plumage. Rufous is the default "vagrant" hummingbird here, with dozens of records and birds turning up annually. There is but one Ohio record of Allen's Hummingbird, from late fall/early winter 2009. Ditto the Calliope Hummi…

Snowy owl photography tactics - and things NOT to do

A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.

These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.

I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.

And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And th…