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Northern Flicker
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Picidae
Genus: Colaptes
Species: C. auratus
Binomial name
Colaptes auratus
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family. It is native to most of North America, parts of Central America, Cuba, the Cayman Islands,and is one of the few woodpecker species that migrate. It is the only woodpecker that commonly feeds on the ground. There are over 100 common names for the Northern Flicker. Among them are: Yellowhammer, clape, gaffer woodpecker, harry-wicket, heigh-ho, wake-up, walk-up, wick-up, yarrup, and gawker bird. Many of these names are attempts at imitating some of its calls.

Contents

Taxonomy

The Northern Flicker is part of the genus Colaptes which encompasses 12 New-World woodpeckers. There are two living and one extinct subspecies of C. auratus species. The existing sub-species were at one time considered separate species but they commonly interbreed where ranges overlap and are now considered one species by the American Ornithologists Union. Whether or not they are separate species is a well-known example of the species problem.

  • The Yellow-shafted Flicker Colaptes auratus resides in eastern North America. They are yellow under the tail and underwings and have yellow shafts on their primaries. They have a grey cap, a beige face and a red bar at the nape of their neck. Males have a black moustache. Colaptes comes from the Greek verb colapt, to peck. Auratus is from the Latin root aurat, meaning "gold" or "golden" and refers to the bird's underwing.
  • The Red-shafted Flicker Colaptes auratus cafer resides in western North America. They are red under the tail and underwings and have red shafts on their primaries. They have a beige cap and a grey face. Males have a red moustache. The scientific name, Colaptes auratus cafer, is the result of an error made in 1788 by the German systematist, Johann Gmelin, who believed that its original habitat was in South Africa among the Xhosa people, then known as the "Kaffir" people. (The term "Kaffir" is now considered an extreme ethnic slur in South Africa.)
  • The Guadalupe Flicker Colaptes auratus/cafer rufipileus extinct c. 1910.

Description

Red-shafted Northern Flicker male and female

Adults are brown with black bars on the back and wings and measure approximately 32 cm (12.5 inches) in length. The wingspan is approximately 17 to 20 inches. A necklace-like black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red moustachial stripe at the base of the beak. The tail is dark on top, transitioning to a white rump which is conspicuous in flight.

The subspecies plumage varies as described in Taxonomy section.

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Call and flight

This bird's call is a sustained laugh, ki ki ki ki ..., more congenial than that of the Pileated Woodpecker. You could also hear a constant knocking as they often drum on trees or even metal objects to declare territory.

Like many woodpeckers, its flight is undulating. The repeated cycle of a quick succession of flaps followed by a pause creates an effect comparable to a rollercoaster.

Behavior

Diet

According to the Audubon guide, "flickers are the only woodpeckers that frequently feed on the ground", probing with their beak, also sometimes catching insects in flight. Although they eat fruits, berries, seeds and nuts, their primary food is insects. Ants alone can make up 45% of their diet. They have a behavior called anting, during which they use the acid from the ants to assist in preening, as it is useful in keeping them free of parasites.

Reproduction

Two males in a territorial display during spring

Their breeding habitat consists of forested areas across North America and as far south as Central America. They are cavity nesters who typically nest in trees though they will also use posts and birdhouses if sized and situated appropriately. They prefer to excavate their own home though they will reuse and repair damaged or abandoned nests. Abandoned flicker nests create habitat for other cavity nesters. Flickers are sometimes driven from nesting sites by another cavity nester, European starlings.

It takes about 1 to 2 weeks to build the nest which is built by both sexes of the mating pairs. The entrance hole is roughly 5 cm to 10 cm wide.

Northern Flicker feeding juvenile at nest cavity entrance

A typical clutch consists of 6 to 8 eggs whose shells are pure white with a smooth surface and high gloss. The eggs are the second largest of the North American woodpecker species, exceeded only by the Pileated Woodpecker's. Incubation is by both sexes for approximately 11 to 12 days. The young are fed by regurgitation and fledge about 25 to 28 days after hatching.

Wintering & Migration

Northern birds migrate to the southern parts of the range; southern birds are often permanent residents.

Alabama Yellowhammers

A female Yellow-shafted Flicker.

In the South and in New England [2] the traditional name for the bird is "Yellowhammer". Under that name it is the state bird of Alabama.[3]

Alabama has been known as the "Yellowhammer State" since the American Civil War. The yellowhammer nickname was applied to the Confederate soldiers from Alabama when a company of young cavalry soldiers from Huntsville, under the command of Rev. D.C. Kelly, arrived at Hopkinsville, KY, where Gen. Forrest's troops were stationed. The officers and men of the Huntsville company wore fine, new uniforms, whereas the soldiers who had long been on the battlefields were dressed in faded, worn uniforms. On the sleeves, collars and coattails of the new cavalry troop were bits of brilliant yellow cloth. As the company rode past Company A , Will Arnett cried out in greeting "Yellowhammer, Yellowhammer, flicker, flicker!" The greeting brought a roar of laughter from the men and from that moment the Huntsville soldiers were spoken of as the "yellowhammer company." The term quickly spread throughout the Confederate Army and all Alabama troops were referred to unofficially as the "Yellowhammers."

When the Confederate Veterans in Alabama were organized they took pride in being referred to as the "Yellowhammers" and wore a yellowhammer feather in their caps or lapels during reunions.

The Yellowhammer is also mentioned in a famous University of Alabama cheer. The Rammer Jammer Cheer pays tribute to the state bird in its final line which reads, Rammer Jammer, Yellowhammer, give 'em hell, Alabama!

This should not be confused with the unrelated Emberiza citrinella, which also goes by the name yellowhammer.

Photos

Footnotes

  1. ^ BirdLife International (2004). Colaptes auratus. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2007. Retrieved on 30 July 2007. Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
  2. ^ Robert Lowell, Selected Poems (2d ed.), p. 40 ("Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid").
  3. ^ "Alabama State Bird". Alabama Emblems, Symbols and Honors. Alabama Department of Archives & History. 2006-04-27. http://www.archives.state.al.us/emblems/st_bird.html. Retrieved 2007-03-18.  

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