For the Birds Radio Program: Peterson's Flickers
August 28, 2008, marks the centennial of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson. The world’s most famous birder was known as “King Penguin,” but the bird that originally sparked his fascination with birds was a common species around his home in Jamestown, New York—the flicker.
Newer issues of the Peterson field guide call it the Northern Flicker, but when Peterson was a boy it was the Yellow-shafted Flicker, so named for the yellow shafts of the wing and tail flight feathers. On the ground or a tree trunk, flickers are brown flecked with black spots. Males sport a black mustache mark and both sexes have a crimson crescent on the nape of their neck. They’re handsome but not eye-catching. And then they open their brilliant yellow wing linings. Roger Tory Peterson often recounted the very moment his love for birds was sparked. He was eleven years old, traipsing about with his friend Carl, who:
found a dead bird on a tree… There it was, about four feet from the ground, clasping the trunk, its bill nuzzled into the feathers of its back. It was a flicker, a beautiful thing, the first one we had ever seen. We were wondering how the poor creature had died in such a manner when I ventured to poke it with my finger. The ‘dead’ bird suddenly came to life, looked at us in amazement, and bounded away!
Peterson wrote often about how this moment crystallized the thought that birds in flight are the “most vivid representation of life,” and said:
Birds can fly where they want to when they want to. So it seems to us, who are earthbound. They symbolize a degree of freedom that we would nearly give our souls to have.
Flickers and other birds don’t have quite as much freedom as we imagine, bound as they are by deep instincts that keep them within their geographic range. They can be found throughout forested Canada and Alaska, all of the lower 48, and down into Mexico, but if one took it into its head to head out to the Galápagos or Australia, it wouldn’t make it any more easily than we would. Fortunately, yearnings for distant continents probably don’t pop into a flicker’s head in the first place.
This time of year, flickers are especially noticeable as they prepare for and embark on fall migration. We can watch them flying along lakeshores and coastlines, and we can see them on the ground, feeding on ants, just about anywhere. They don’t run about as robins do, because their food is concentrated within anthills. They often fly between different ones or sit on trees between feeding bouts, but when they move on the ground it’s with short hops. On their home turf, they often sleep inside tree cavities, but not necessarily always the same ones, and sometimes they prefer to sleep in the open air, clinging to a vertical tree branch or trunk, usually in a somewhat sheltered area of a tree. Variety in sleeping quarters is apparently the spice of life for a flicker—one individual occupied 11 different sites in 132 nights. During migration they’re not likely to find unclaimed cavities, so are more likely to sleep on trunks than within the shelter of a cavity.
When we approach and a flicker takes off, we’re more likely to notice the conspicuous white rump than yellow wing linings, since it’s likely to head directly away from us. But coming or going the flicker is one of the easiest birds to identify in flight, since we’re likely to observe at least two of the three field marks—bounding flight, yellow wing linings, and white rump.
Flickers are not considered social birds, but they do associate in loose flocks while migrating, and sometimes can be seen in groups, though each bird tends to want enough personal space that they’re usually a good 10 feet apart.
The flicker, also known as the Yellowhammer, is the state bird of Alabama. John James Audubon, who never painted a bird that he didn’t at least taste, wrote of it, “Some are now and then exposed in the markets of New York and Philadelphia; but I look upon the flesh as very disagreeable, it having a strong flavour of ants.” They may not nourish our bodies, but the sight of these most vivid representations of life can nourish our souls.