For the Birds Radio Program: Flicker

Original Air Date: July 10, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about a bird nicknamed the clape, gaffer, and yarrup. 3:46

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(Recording of a Common Flicker)

People often describe birds that they’ve seen, hoping I can identify them. Lately I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about a big brown bird which sits on lawns. It has a red crescent on the back of its neck, a black crescent on its throat, and a breast with black spots. It sort of looks like a woodpecker, except that it hops on lawns and digs for ants.

That bird is a woodpecker–the Northern Flicker. It’s unique in the woodpecker family because its fondness for ants keeps it on the ground much of the time. One ornithologist counted over 5,000 ants in the stomach of a single flicker. John James Audubon wrote that flickers tasted disagreeably of formic acid from the ants, but another ornithologist, Arthur Cleveland Bent, wrote that flickers were “very good to eat,” and commented that they could often be found hanging in game dealers’ stalls. Of course nowadays the taste of a flicker is a moot point. You’d have to be a hawk or falcon to eat one legally, since they’re protected by law.

The flicker is a popular bird–so noticeable that people have given it at least 132 different common names–like the clape, gaffer woodpecker, high-hole, partridge woodpecker, and yarrup. It’s the state bird of Alabama. During the Civil War, Alabama soldiers marched off to battle with feathers of the yellowhammer stuck in their hats.

The flicker, like other woodpeckers, has zygodactylous feet–that is, two toes face forward, and two behind. It also has stiff, pointed tail feathers. Both these features help it climb up vertical tree trunks. The flicker’s tongue is extremely long, even by woodpecker standards. It’s barbed, and secretes a sticky substance which helps in catching ants.

The flicker does eat other insects like beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, and wood lice. It also takes a lot of berries and seeds– from blueberries to ragweed and poison sumac. It in turn is eaten by several species of hawk and owl–its steady swooping flight through open areas makes it vulnerable to flying predators. Flickers have been clocked flying 25 miles per hour–but that’s hardly fast enough to evade a Peregrine Falcon, which easily goes over a hundred in a stoop.

The flicker’s main enemy is the starling. Flickers often don’t excavate a new nest in spring–they return to an old nest, or a wood duck house. Starlings, which are much more aggressive, often evict flickers or even kill them to steal the nest for their own.

If they do manage to keep their own nest, a pair of flickers share parental duties. Unlike humans and most birds, with flickers dad gets stuck with night duty. Males incubate all night, while females roost in their own private cavity, with a peace and solitude that mothers of human babies can only imagine.

My favorite story about flickers involves a screech owl which lost its own brood twice one spring. The owl suddenly took it into its head to adopt some baby flickers in their nest hole in the same tree. Not only did the owl brood them, it also tried to feed them part of a small bird. All this time, the flicker parents were feeding them more appropriate food, and they eventually were successfully raised. No one knows if the babies ever learned that owls were supposed to be their enemies.

(Recording of a Northern Flicker)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”