For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Flicker

Original Air Date: Sept. 10, 1990

(Date verified) As flicker migration peaks in September, Laura looks at some interesting things about Alabama’s beloved “yellowhammer.”

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September is National Flicker Month. Right now, throughout much of the United States, flickers are hopping on lawns, sunning on dirt roads, conspicuously perching on snags and high branches, and flying in deep swoops with their white rump patch exposed like an identifying badge. These unique ant-eating woodpeckers can be found in even the most urbanized areas in autumn, picnicking in city parks or flying overhead. The undersides of the wing and tail feathers in eastern birds are more intensely golden than the brightest autumn aspen leaves—these feathers in western birds are more the crimson of maple leaves.

The flicker is found throughout the United States and Canada as far north as the tree line, and is conspicuous and popular enough to have inspired at least 132 local nicknames. In Alabama, where it is honored as the state bird, its official name is the yellowhammer. Other names include the high hole, yarrup, wood pigeon, gaffer woodpecker, and harry-wicket. One of its names refers to a habit popular only with early risers—the flicker’s calls and high decibel drumming at dawn led to the moniker, “wake-up.”

Flickers migrate through the Northland in huge numbers. Last fall, 9,000 were counted in Duluth on September 22. These big, slow-flying migrants are especially popular with hawks. Beachcombers and people raking lawns often find bright yellow-shafted tail and wing feathers marking the site of a raptorial feast. Flickers weigh in at 4-6 ounces, about the same as a quarter pound hamburger patty topped with a thick piece of cheese, which makes quite a meal for a 6-8 ounce Merlin. Flicker feathers are found in nests of many falcons and accipiters, who apparently disagree with the gastronomic pronouncements of John James Audubon. Audubon wrote in 1821 that flickers taste disagreeable because their meat is permeated with formic acid from the ants they eat, but hawks apparently enjoy the spiciness.

There are at least two different theories explaining the flicker’s conspicuous white rump patch. One is that the patch diverts the aim of predators from vital organs to the less vulnerable tail. The other theory is that the flamboyant flickers flaunt their flashy rumps at fellow flickers flapping in flight to foster flocking. That’s the theory I favor, though the alliteration makes other flinch.

For some unaccountable reason, flickers seem to inspire bizarre experiments. An ornithologist once added a fake mustache to a female flicker, making her appear like a male. Her mate, who mistook her for a rival male, attacked her and chased her off his territory. As soon as the ornithologist removed the disguise, her mate recognized and accepted her once again. The scientist never investigated the question of whether she was willing to forgive her mate.

Another even ruder ornithologist, studying how many eggs a bird can lay, removed eggs from a flicker nest as rapidly as they were laid, always leaving a single “nest egg.” The poor female ended up laying 71 eggs in 73 days before either she gave up or the ornithologist quit to become a joke writer for Don Rickles.