Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, August 7, 2020

Blue Jays!!!

Blue Jay fledgling

On August 1, I did my monthly Zoom presentation about the birds of August, and one of the things I talked about was how scruffy chickadee and Blue Jay adults look right now, even as the babies are in perfect plumage. Those feathers the adults have been sporting for a full year are getting worn, making the birds look bedraggled to begin with, but as they fall out, before the new feathers emerge, the birds can look pretty miserable as well. 

Molting adult Blue Jay

I have a good number of bedraggled adult chickadee photos... 

Molting Black-capped Chickadee

...but had to obtain a photo of a bald Blue Jay from someone else for my presentation. And before this summer, the only photo I had of an adorable baby jay begging for food was one I took when I was a rehabber—the bird is sitting on my dining room chair back, so as adorable as it is, it’s clearly not in natural habitat. 

Baby Blue Jay

A few weeks ago, I got photos of one family of jays, with some pictures of the babies begging.  

Baby Blue Jay begging

Those parents didn’t trust me, so they always led the babies where I couldn’t see them actually feeding them. Even when coming for peanuts, they’d scream bloody murder if I got too close to a fledgling. 

But since I did that program, I’ve gotten better pictures of Blue Jays than ever before in my life, because there’s been a sea change in how cooperative they are. I’ve been feeding them peanuts since spring, always whistling before I set them out, and little by little, the jays have come to recognize me. On August 7, their insistent babies were begging so desperately that the adults started approaching closer and closer to me and my camera when I placed peanuts nearby and whistled. At first, they did not approve of my camera, which has a huge lens, and were quite skittish and even agitated if I held it up, but they started noticing me taking photos of squirrels and more tolerant birds, which always survived the ordeal.  

Molting adult Blue Jay

Even so, at first the jay would barely land to grab a peanut and fly off, but as they got used to me, they alighted, studied all the peanuts, and sometimes even picked up one or two to choose the heaviest one before flying off. Their impatient fledglings would wait impatiently in my nearby apple tree, and soon I was clicking away to my heart’s content. 

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

Adult Blue Jay feeding fledgling

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

The fledglings are absolutely adorable, and once the parents started tolerating me and stopped squawking to warn the fledglings about me, I got some lovely close-ups. 

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay fledgling

I also got some photos of the parents at close range, but most people wouldn’t call those photos nice. One parent looked scruffy but still had plenty of head feathers—it is molting some at a time rather than all at once. 

Blue Jay adult molting

Molting adult Blue Jay

The other one is very bald, revealing the dark skin and large ear holes. Head feathers not only give the Blue Jay its perky crest and lovely markings—they’re also thick, making the head appear large. The bald bird shows quite clearly how tiny the bird's head actually is.  

Molting adult Blue Jay

Molting adult Blue Jay

Pinfeathers are emerging, so at least the poor thing won’t be bald for too long, and nature is kind enough to put birds through this before nights are cold enough to cause hypothermia. Blue Jays seem to vary individually in whether they molt those head feathers in sequence or all at once—my education Blue Jay Sneakers always molted all her head feathers simultaneously, but another jay I had for several years molted his feathers more gradually, and sometimes I couldn’t even tell he was molting by his appearance—just by the feathers I’d find at the bottom of his cage. 

I’m having so much fun watching these Blue Jays that it’s easy to forget that they got a lot of protein this week from my baby wrens. When I realized that the parents were studying the raspberry patch to pluck tiny, newly fledged wrens I went indoors and stayed put. 

Blue Jays spend a lot of time drinking and bathing, so mine have been spending quite a bit of time at my birdbaths. But bathing birds are extremely vulnerable to predation, and so the adults have been quite wary, yelling out warnings if they can see me at all when the young are bathing. I've taken most of my bathing photos from a distance, cropping the pictures a lot. 

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay fledgling

Blue Jay migration can start kicking in in August, as young grow independent and adults finish their molts. Having some local birds who know me will make the birds passing through more tolerant—Blue Jays communicate their experiences well, so each one doesn’t have to figure out everything in a strange environment on its own.  

This year of pandemic has been so strange and confining. Who’d have thought that some of the most familiar birds of all could give me so many wonderful new experiences? I hope you’re finding lots of joys where you are, too, dear reader. 

Blue Jay

A Conversation with Don Kroodsma, Part 5: European Starlings

Last month when I interviewed ornithologist Don Kroodsma about his wonderful new book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, we talked a bit about the splendid bird that has become an ecological scourge here in America. My son had a pet starling named Mortimer for many years, and I love their songs, so even as I hate their presence here for the problems they pose to cavity nesters such as Red-headed Woodpeckers and bluebirds, I can’t help but be fond of the individuals.  

European Starling

DON:  Oh, people love to hate starlings, and I can understand that. They’re blamed for the decline of some of our cavity-nesting birds, but if you just listen to a starling, or look at one closely, they’re quite stunning to look at too, with all that iridescence. But if you listen to a starling—I think back to an experience I had. I was standing underneath a Florida palm tree, the parabola was aimed up into the tree, and I swore I had a whole flock of birds up there doing various things. I took the headphones off, looked around, listened—no! It was just one starling that was doing all this. And it totally befuddled me.  

They mimic, yes, but it didn’t dawn on me until I started looking at some of the sonograms of these songs what they were doing. There’s an example in the book, #343, where an Eastern male is simultaneously mimicking, and when I say simultaneously, he has a left voice box and a right voice box, as do all these songbirds, and with the left voice box he’s mimicking one species and with the right voice box simultaneously the other. Eastern Phoebe and a Northern Flicker. And immediately after that, he’s got Sandhill Crane and a Black-capped Chickadee—two bugles of the Sandhill Crane and the Black-capped Chickadee. And those also are simultaneous, with the other voice box producing standard clicks and chortles of European Starlings.

ME: The recording Don referred to, which I played in the background of my podcast, is from the companion website to his book, where you can listen to or even download (for free, without registering!) an amazing assortment of bird songs, at www.birdsongforthecurious.com. When I was starting out as a birder, I discovered how often starlings imitate Eastern Wood-Pewees and Eastern Meadowlarks.

DON: Yes. The songs you mentioned are those nice slow, sliding whistles that the starling often begins his song with. After that slow introduction, you’re totally unprepared for the energy that’s going to follow, and the frantic finale where he’s waving his wings and throwing his entire body into the song. He’s something to watch as well as listen to.

That recording #343, that’s of an Eastern male. Well, the Western birds, Western starlings, well they mimic Western birds of course—they don’t have any of the Eastern species. And I have another example of a Western bird, where it is amazing all the birds that he is mimicking in one song. I list them here in the book, p. 76: Long-billed Curlew. California Quail—it’s just beautiful. Tree Swallow. Pacific Tree Frog. A Wilson’s Snipe winnow. Another Long-billed Curlew. A Killdeer. And then, for me the climax, simultaneously, mimicking a House Sparrow and Sandhill Crane, two species that are opposite ends of the spectrum of birds that we just cherish. It’s as if he’s doing this just to spite us. Then an American Robin song, and then ending it with a Black-crowned Night-Heron about 35 seconds into the song. You have to be up close to starlings to appreciate them, and all the better if you’ve got a parabolic reflector aimed right at the bird and you hear all these priceless little details that he’s rolling out onto you.

ME: Those individual starlings have no idea whatsoever that they belong on another continent entirely—they and their songs have been fully Americanized. Some recent studies have shown that starlings haven’t caused a decline in some cavity nesters, such as flickers, so they’re not quite as bad as we used to believe, and are a lot more interesting than most of us like to admit.

European Starling

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Thank you to all my supporters!

Baby Blue Jay begging

Thank you to everyone who is donating to support my blog and podcast, via Patreon or sending donations directly to me. On August 5, I received my second payment from Patreon, this time for over $230. 

What I’ve been spending the money on: 

A Zoom Pro account ($163.21 for a year—it would have been more expensive to pay month by month). I needed it to do programs longer than the free Zoom’s 45 minutes. 
A better headphone/microphone system to improve the sound quality of my presentations. 
 
What your contributions have allowed me to do:

It’s never been easy for me to reserve time and get to a local radio station for recording phone interviews. My Zoom Pro account allowed me to do two long interviews already:
o L. Drew Lanham’s reading, for the first time in public, his wonderful poem, “Life in Hand,” and explaining what inspired it. This poem will appear in the second edition of his book, Sparrow Envy, to be published this fall. 
o A nice, long interview with Donald Kroodsma, one of the world authorities on bird song, about his new book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist. I broke this interview into topical episodes. Four have already aired as podcast episodes, about Don’s sense of wonder, White-throated Sparrows, Sandhill Cranes, and Connecticut Warblers. Future podcasts/blog entries from this interview will include ones about starlings, Brown Thrashers, how important quiet is, and how Don records birds. 
 
What this monthly support will help me do in the future:

Produce more monthly Zoom programs. If I start getting any more than 100 participants, I'll need to pay Zoom $50 a month more.
Give me the time and resources to produce some live and recorded programs for kids. I’m especially interested in making sure kids with few resources get opportunities to learn about nature.
Before next spring, I want to buy a Swift recorder system from Cornell so I can record my backyard birds every day, rain or shine, programming it to start recording at whatever unearthly hour I choose, to keep more accurate tabs on exactly when each species starts and ends its early morning song bout in relation to dawn. (It will cost about $300). It requires an interface with a PC, and right now I use a Mac, so I’ll need to also buy a tablet or inexpensive laptop to run it. 
When this infernal pandemic is over, I hope to do at least a little more traveling, getting photos, sound recordings, and experience with more birds that need our understanding and help, for my own use in my work and for others who are working to advance the love, understanding, and protection of birds. 
 
Again, my deepest thanks for making all this possible. I'm especially grateful because your contributions are making my unpaid work feel valued. 

My monthly live Zoom presentations are my little thank you to everyone who supports me, from $1 a month up. You are welcome to forward the invitations each month to your own friends and family. It takes several hours to put the programs together, and so far they’ve cost more than the money I’ve taken in, but I didn't go into this to make a profit, and as long as I'm doing the programs anyway, it's nice to make sure everyone who wants to attend can. 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart!  

Baby Blue Jay begging

House Wren Fledging Day

House Wren fledgling

House Wrens nest in my neighborhood every year. My neighbor Jeanne has a wren house that is always a happenin’ place—I’ve taken photos of her birds several times in past years. I know they’ve nested in our brush pile, and in a wren house I have in the back of the yard, but I never seem to be in the right place at the right time on the day the babies fledge.  

I was hoping this year would be different, with me hunkered down at home all summer, but no luck at all in May, June, or July, even as I paid close attention. Indeed, I got hours of wonderful House Wren song recordings starting on May 7, when I heard my first on Peabody Street, and House Wrens became the dominant singers of my dawn chorus recordings throughout June and the first half of July. (You can hear a half hour of one wren singing here.) It’s been thrilling getting such beautiful recordings of these birds—I’ve gotten some photos, too, but haven’t tried very hard because it’s easy to distract and disturb a male, stopping him from singing, and nice recordings seemed much more urgent than photos.   

House Wren

Then Tuesday, August 4, I went out and heard lots of chips and scolding in the back of my yard, and voila! I wasn’t very skilled at first at finding the tiny fledglings perched in Russ’s raspberry patch and in the dense dogwood, daylilies, and other thick vegetation, but by afternoon, when I’d mastered distinguishing the single and double chips of the fledglings from the scolding of the parents, I could see 6 fledglings and heard at least one more, and more likely two, at the same time! House Wren broods start out with anywhere from 3 to 10 young, so 7 or 8 fledglings is excellent but hardly unheard of. I was absolutely thrilled.  

House Wren fledgling and parent

House Wren fledglings

By afternoon, I wasn’t the only one paying attention to them—my Blue Jay parents were apparently hoping to capitalize on the confused wren babies, whose first flights were clumsy and short, and their steady chipping when hungry seemed as useful to Blue Jays looking for protein as for House Wren parents wanting to feed their scattered young.  

On Wednesday morning, I could hear baby wrens at first light, and was relieved that a lot of them made it. But now I watched the two adult Blue Jays—distinguishable from their gorgeous young now because the adults are molting, looking very scruffy—taking turns sitting on the roof of my neighbor’s shed while scanning the raspberry bed. I watched one drop into the raspberries and come up with a little brown puffball. That was all that I had the stomach for. As I walked into the house, I could hear the baby jays calling and begging next door on the other side when that parent flew in. And I could hear one hungry jay stop whining suddenly to eat its breakfast.  

I’ve always known how difficult life is for birds, and why wrens and some other species have such large broods two and even three times a year, yet their populations stay the same. But I managed for 68 years to not think very hard about how exceptionally fraught the first day or two out of the nest are for tiny fledglings. I love Blue Jays, and I love House Wrens. I’m thrilled that I got photos of my baby wrens yesterday, and I know I’m not the one who alerted the jays to them—the baby wrens did that themselves. And the jays weren’t around when I was out there yesterday.   

Now the jays may be persistent—they have four or five hungry fledglings themselves—but they probably won’t be able to get all of the wren babies. At least one or two may make it off Peabody Street and onto their journey south. I’ll keep listening, but now the feeling of reassurance when I hear a baby chipping will be tinged with dread, hoping a jay isn’t listening. I’m starting to understand the truth of the line, “Ignorance is bliss.”  

House Wren fledglilng

Monday, August 3, 2020

August!

Eastern Cottontail

Not since the 1980s, when my children were little, have I spent every single day of April, May, June, and July at home; August and September promise more of the same. And even back in the 80s, when I felt so housebound, we made frequent trips to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Port Wing, Wisconsin, and Russ adjusted his workday schedule to accommodate my going birding at local hotspots like Park Point and the Western Waterfront Trail.  

Back then, while I was still trying to amass a big yard list, I paid very close attention to my backyard birds, but after my second year on Peabody Street, it was tricky to add new ones except during migration. It wasn’t that I lost interest in backyard birds in July and early August—there were so very many Evening Grosbeaks, and how could I ignore them? But now, thanks to the pandemic, I’m paying closer attention to even the most common birds in my backyard than I ever did before.  

Red-breaasted Nuthatch, Nashville Warbler, and Purple Finch at birdbath

Tragically, my favorite birdbath, with an electric recirculating fountain, died this spring. Russ and I made a new birdbath out of an old plastic kitty litter box and a solar-powered recirculating fountain from an old, broken birdbath—lots of robins have been using that all summer, and now Blue Jays have discovered it, too. 

Baby robins bathing

Every August warblers always appeared at my old birdbath, and so to help make sure that still happens without my old bath, I bought two shallow 20” birdbath basins, one 10” stand, and a water mister/dripper. I have them set together so when the basin on the stand fills, any overflow drops into the lower basin. I have this set up right next to Russ’s raspberry patch not far from our crabapple tree, giving any visitors good places to duck out to if a hawk flies over. 

I have no idea why, but this year we have had more rabbits on Peabody Street than ever before. At least four litters of bunnies were born in Russ’s raspberry patch, and I’ve taken more bunny and rabbit photos in the past several weeks than in the previous 68 years. 

Eastern Cottontail bunny eating raspberries

Lucky for me and those babies, no owls have been in our yard so far. But I’m getting lots of emails from listeners and blog readers asking about the owls in their neighborhoods, and especially about some screechy hisses they hear at night. Barn Owls are famous for their screechy hiss call, but they don’t breed up here, and even within their range, Barn Owls never nest in forested areas. What people are mainly hearing are begging baby Barred and Great Horned Owls. When those young leave their nests, they are almost full grown but can’t fly yet—they’re called “branchers” for their habit of hanging onto branches for dear life. Sometimes they do fall to the ground and sometimes may be stuck there for a day or two. If they can stay hidden, they’ll be just fine—their parents are perfectly capable of finding and feeding them. But dogs and cats can make short work of them—the owlets’ talons are sharp and strong, but they’re too inexperienced to know how to use them. They are still capable of inflicting damage on any people who try to help them. 

The best advice if you come across an owl on the ground is to see if it appears injured, and if it is, call a rehabber for instructions. With binoculars, you might be able to tell if one of a Great Horned Owl’s eyes looks off—head injuries caused by falls sometime cause concussions or other head injuries that could make one pupil fixed and dilated. But owl parents do better than even the finest rehab facilities at not just keeping their young alive but educating them for life in the wild, so don’t interfere unless it really is necessary.  

As August proceeds, we’ll see fewer and fewer dependent young birds, and migration will start kicking in. Unlike in the 1980s, I won’t have much of a chance of adding to my yard list, but I’ll be out there watching, and photographing. It’s the right way to fill my time during a pandemic. Stay safe and well, dear reader. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Laura's Best Birds EVER! Baby Flickers

Northern Flickers

Back in the ‘90s when I was a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, one summer I was brought two baby flickers. Their nest tree had broken off right at the nest cavity in a storm. The babies were apparently okay in there, and the parents continued to feed them, but then crows discovered the open nest. They’d carried off at least two nestlings when people climbed up to save the survivors.   

The two nestlings were pretty well feathered already, but one of the surprising things I learned about woodpeckers because of this experience is that nestlings don’t flutter or hop anywhere, except, as they get a little bigger and stronger, they work their way up to the entrance hole. They stay securely inside the cavity until they’re capable of powered flight. So even as they grew and became almost full-sized, they stayed put wherever I put them. At night I kept them in an open ice cream bucket, and in the morning brought them into the dining room. I put towels on the backs of two chairs, and newspapers on the seats. The babies clung to the towels for the day as if stuck with Velcro.   

Northern Flickers

Yet even while they are still in their nest cavities, baby woodpeckers start toddling up to the entrance hole, where they get sun exposure, important for their bodies to manufacture Vitamin D. To make up for being stuck indoors, I took a daily walk with them clinging to the pockets of my cargo shorts.   

Northern Flickers

I fed them a powdered commercial baby bird food mix with an eyedropper. Baby woodpeckers grasp their parent’s bill and the parent regurgitates semi-digested insects down their throats, which was pretty easy to mimic with the eyedropper. Keeping them on two separate chairs, we didn’t notice how aggressive baby flickers can be with their siblings.   

Northern Flickers

Baby birds have a wider mouth than adults, often with colorful mouth linings and gape, where the upper and lower mandibles meet. These baby flickers had harder tissue projecting outward a bit there—a firm, pearly projection. I’d never had any baby woodpecker before, so didn’t know this was a feature common to the whole family.   

The flickers may have been easy to keep indoors while they were nestlings, but I knew that as soon as they could fly at all, they would be in danger in our house, where not one room was big enough to allow them more than one or two wingbeats without them crashing into a wall. Luckily, I figured this out in time, and started keeping them in a Wood Duck house in a dead apple tree in our yard before they even tried flying. From the start, my sons and I had always whistled before we fed them, and kept this up consistently, so when they could fly, they’d come right to us if we whistled when they were hungry. 

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers

That’s when we discovered that, if they both came in at once, they’d attack each other viciously, often aiming for each other’s eyes. Some people believe the whitish projections on baby woodpecker mouths help the parents aim for their mouths in the dark nest cavity, which makes sense, but watching these flickers jousting, I noticed that those mouth projections deflected an attacking sibling’s bill away from the eyes, so these little projections probably serve a bit of a protective function, too.  

Northern Flickers

From the start, we could tell the two apart by their breast markings. One had nice bold spots, leading of course to our calling that one Spot. The other’s spots were far smaller and more delicate, as if painted on with a much finer brush. That one we called Speckles.  

After a few days in the backyard, Spot and Speckles started exploring the neighborhood. I took them to a few anthills, but otherwise, they had to pick up all the skills of being wild on the street, so it took them longer to be independent than it would have if they’d grown up with their parents. One of my sons or I would go out in the backyard every half hour or so every day from late July well into October and whistle and Bam! (they flew fast, and landed hard)—one of the flickers would fly in and land on us, and then the other would.   

If we got a good meal into the first before the second arrived, everything was easy. But if the second came just moments after the first, we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to keep them from murdering each other. It seemed odd how absolutely opposed they both were to sharing food, because they always flew in from the same direction and every time we spotted them in the neighborhood, they were together.   

By October, they weren’t flying in as quickly when we whistled, sometimes disappearing for hours at a time, and weren’t eating as much when they did come in. That’s how we knew they were getting successful at finding their own food. The big surge of flicker migration had ebbed in September, but there were still some others in the neighborhood when Spot and Speckles stopped coming altogether. We never knew if they had started associating with other flickers, but figured they must have worked out migration somehow.   

Usually that’s the end of a rehab story—the bird dies or disappears, never to be seen again. But the next spring, one fine morning when Joey was doing his paper route, he heard a flicker and looked up to see it studying him, so he whistled. And Bam!—it flew right to him. He of course didn’t have any food on him, and even a perfectly natural flicker would not be expecting its parents to feed it at this point, but what a thrill to know that at least one of our babies had definitely survived the winter, and definitely remembered us. Those baby flickers were the Best Birds EVER!  

Northern Flickers

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

August 1 Zoom Program

When: Saturday, August 1, 2020, 7:00 pm CDT
Where: Laura's Zoom Conference Room

My Patreon supporters (and people who contributed back-channel) should have already received an email invitation. Let me know if you did not. 

If you received an invitation, feel free to forward it to friends and family, too.
 
People who sign up to support my podcast and blog via Patreon by Saturday morning (minimum $1 per month) will get an invitation to this program. 

Topic: Birds of Late Summer

Chestnut-sided Warbler in fall plumage
Chestnut-sided Warbler in fall plumage

In August, some birds may still be nesting, especially goldfinches and a few Cedar Waxwings, while others are already heading south, including hummingbirds and a lot of shorebirds. Many young birds are still hanging out with their parents, depending on at least some handouts as they learn to negotiate the world on their own. And many young migrating birds are studying the night sky; they may have magnetite in their brains to serve as a low-tech compass, but when the stars are visible, celestial navigation can be more reliable. 

This is a great time to add birds to our yard lists, including species that don't live in the kind of habitat our yards provide. An interesting assortment of birds may fly over, and water features can lure in more. My favorite birdbath, with a recirculating flow, broke down this year and I couldn't replace it with anything similar, so I'm trying something new. 

Blackburnian Warbler at my birdbath
Blackburnian Warbler at my old birdbath

The birdbath that no longer works looked like a rocky pool. We had another birdbath that was way too deep, with a shallower little pool at the top with a solar fountain. The main, too-deep part cracked, but I put the solar fountain in an old kitty litter box filled with small stones. Some backyard birds have been using that. 

American Robin preening

Blue Jays at my birdbath

Now I've also set up a shallow pan-type bird bath on a short stand, with a spray dripper hooked up to our hose, slowly spilling into another pan-type bird bath on the ground. So far I haven't seen any birds at it, but we'll see what August brings. 

Birdbath with mister and second level


The program will include plenty of photos of interesting August birds, and I'll try to give you a good understanding of their lives. 

More than you thought you wanted to know about Northern Flickers

Northern Flicker

I have a lot of memories of the first time Russ and I came up to northern Wisconsin to visit his parents in Port Wing after I became a birder. That first week of September in 1975, I added 13 lifers, and even more memorable were some of my experiences—walking with Russ on Sand Beach in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, we saw raccoon and mink footprints but no human or dog prints, and I studied a little Lapland Longspur working its way along the beach, moving slowly and deliberately enough for me to have plenty of time to page through my field guide figuring out who it was. 

Cedar Waxwing

Before this trip, I’d already seen plenty of Cedar Waxwings, but suddenly they were conspicuous and everywhere, whole flocks perched in big snags and slender dead branches rising above shrubs, darting out to catch flying insects. Some were tucked into those shrubs, feeding on berries, but even they were noticeable, making their high-pitched sleepy snores, contrasting with the raspy mews catbirds were making within those same shrubs. 

I not only added ravens to my lifelist but also had ample opportunity to compare their calls and flight silhouettes to those of crows. I had somehow managed to miss both Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers entirely my first spring of birding, despite their being two of the very most abundant of all warblers, but in Port Wing that early fall, I made up for lost time, seeing them everywhere and memorizing their call notes. The dry chip of the Yellow-rump sounded to my ears like an annoyed math teacher; the slightly more liquid one of the Palm Warbler more like an annoyed music teacher.  

Northern Flicker

But of all the memorable birding experiences I had that September, most vividly impressed on my memory are the flickers. I’d seen my first one way back in May, and saw them here and there throughout spring and summer, but now, that first week of September in northern Wisconsin, they were everywhere, acting not at all like the woodpeckers I knew they were. Whenever Russ and I walked or drove along any dirt road or my in-laws’ gravel driveway, flickers flew up ahead of us, showing off their unmistakable bold white rump and flashes of brilliant yellow on their wings and tail. I found quite a few fairly large feathers along the beach with bold yellow shafts and the vanes on just the underside vivid yellow, giving me an appreciation of the dangers of migration as well as the beauty of flickers.  

Flicker wing on Port Wing Beach

When I could park myself down before flushing one, I could watch them picking up ants. I vaguely remembered something about that from ornithology class, but it was much more vividly impressed on my brain when I could actually watch them. Flickers eat more ants than any other bird, and also take a wide variety of beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, crickets, grubs, and other insects. They’ve even been reported flycatching—that is, darting out to capture flying insects on the wing.  

To sweeten their diet, about 40 percent of their food is vegetal, especially berries and other fruits. They seem especially fond of poison ivy berries, helping to disseminate their seeds. They also take some acorns, beechnuts, and other seeds.  

Flickers are one of the birds that are beloved by just about anyone who sees them, and they’re seen by a lot of people in North America. They can be found year round in most of the Lower 48 states, Cuba, and well down into Mexico and Central America. The vast majority of them retreat south from the northernmost states in winter, and a great many breed in the northern states, much of Canada, and Alaska. Indeed, they breed further north than any other woodpecker except the Three-toed Woodpecker.   

Northern Flicker

The alabama.gov website gives this bit of history:  

The common flicker is the State Bird of Alabama. Alabama has been known as the "Yellowhammer State" since the 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.  
 
A bill introduced in the 1927 legislature by Representative Thomas E. Martin, Montgomery County, was passed and approved by Governor Bibb Graves on September 6, 1927.
 
Roger Tory Peterson often wrote about the flicker that sparked his love for birds. In a 1937 National Audubon Society leaflet , he wrote about an experience he had when he was about 11 years old 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!
 
Arthur Cleveland Bent, the author and compiler of the comprehensive Life Histories of North American Birds was also struck by a seemingly lifeless flicker when he was a boy, though in his case the bird really was dead. He wrote: 

I can remember as clearly as if it were only yesterday my boyish, enthusiastic admiration for this beautiful bird, though it was between 50 or 60 years ago that my father first showed me a freshly killed flicker. I was simply entranced with the softly blended browns, the red crescent on the head, the black crescent and bold spotting on the breast, and, above all, with the golden glow in the wings and tail. Few birds combine such charming colors and pleasing contrasts. I have never lost my admiration for it, and still consider it one of nature’s gems.  
 
Franklin L. Burns listed 123 vernacular names for this species in a monograph about flickers. Arthur Cleveland Bent included only one nickname in his Life History, “the ‘partridge woodpecker,’ suggestive of my boyhood days, when flickers, meadowlarks, and robins were considered legitimate game.” John James Audubon did not consider flickers good eating—he disliked the bitter taste flicker meat took on from the formic acid permeating the bodies of the flicker’s favorite food (and the reason ants belong to the family Formicidae). Unlike Audubon, many people enjoyed the spicy flavor enough that flickers were commonly seen strung up with other birds at old meat markets. 

Reading Bent’s account, originally published in 1939 when he was 73 years old, certainly reflects the sensibilities of earlier generations, and not only in terms of people eating flickers. He extolled the beauty of their eggs: 

The eggs of the flicker are pure lustrous white, with a brilliant gloss; the shell is translucent, and, when fresh, the yolk shows through it, suffusing the egg with a delicate pinkish glow, which is very beautiful.  
 
Yet most of his discussion of eggs relates to collecting. In particular, he focuses on how many eggs various collectors managed to take from individual flickers, inducing them to produce additional eggs which they in turn collected. He wrote:  

My neighbor, Charles L. Phillips, tried the experiment of taking one egg each day, leaving one as a nest egg; he holds the extraordinary record of having taken 71 eggs from one nest in 73 days; the poor bird rested only two days in the long strain of over two months. 
 
Unlike the humans who didn’t show much mercy to flickers, at least one wild predator was quite tender with a flicker family. Bent writes:  

W.I.Lyon (1922) tells an interesting story of a screech owl that adopted and brooded a family of young flickers, after its own nest in the same tree had been broken up twice; the owl even brought in part of a small bird, perhaps intending to feed it to the young flickers, which were all the time being fed by their parents and were successfully raised. 
 
Nesting deep in cavities protects woodpeckers from the elements and many predators, but it comes at a cost—when an adult is incubating eggs or brooding young, both energy-intensive jobs, carbon dioxide builds up because there is so little air circulation. Both parents take turns during daytime, but perhaps to even up their physical contributions to the young after the female produced the clutch, the male takes night duty. Once the babies hatch, the adults will be flying in and out with food, which keeps bringing in fresh air, but to minimize the amount of time in the egg, baby woodpeckers are hatched out while they’re extremely undeveloped compared to most birds. 

(You can see some amazing photos of the eggs, chicks, and adults inside a flicker nest in my book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds. I can't post the photos here because they are copyrighted, so you'll have to take my word about how great they are.) 

Bent quoted Althea Sherman’s lovely description of a newly hatched flicker:  

The pellucid color of the newly hatched Flicker resembles that of freshly sun-burned human skin, but so translucent is the nestling’s skin that immediately after a feeding one can see the line of ants that stretches down the bird’s throat and remains in view two or three minutes before passing onward.  
 
I got lots of flicker recordings this spring—they were among the most vociferous of my backyard birds in terms of the amount of time they spent vocalizing and the volume of their calls. As Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote, “The flicker has an elaborate vocabulary; no other woodpecker, and few other birds, can produce a greater variety of loud striking calls and soft conversational notes.”  

The name flicker fits the species visually because of the flickerings of brilliant color we notice when we see them in flight, and the word flicker has for hundreds of years, at least since Chaucer, been used with reference to birds in general, but the reason the name stuck for American flickers may well be that one of their calls seems to be flicka, flicka, flicka—Merriam Webster says the etymology of the name for the bird is “probably imitative of its call.” 

Northern Flicker

There are lots of dead trees in and around my backyard. I don’t like tracking my birds too closely, because my crows track me, and I don’t want to inadvertently give away any other birds’ secrets, but I know my flickers nested either in my own old aspen tree or in one of the dead trees in the little woodland behind my house. After the babies fledged, there were a couple of days when I got to observe them, but they were so quiet and still that it took some luck to notice them in the first place and some work to keep track of them. Intriguingly, they seemed to fly off when they heard a parent call, rather than noisily calling the parents to them. I blundered into that strategy of calling the babies to me when raising our flickers, but it turns out to be what real flicker parents do, too.  

Northern Flicker fledgling

Northern Flicker fledgling

The flicker babies and their parents are all growing new feathers right now, feathers that will have to serve them for a full year. Now that the young are flying well, they seem to be accompanying their parents more, meaning none of them need to call very much, so these families are mostly silent. The parents are still subsidizing the chicks with feedings even as those youngsters grow skilled at finding their own food. This last week of July, I have heard a few flickers yelling out, but haven’t heard any drumming or the extended calls that made this spring so thrilling.

Soon these families will be moving on for the year, gathering with other families in loose but rather large flocks, especially conspicuous on volleyball, soccer, and other sporting fields, dirt roads, and gravel driveways. They often migrate along shorelines, their swoopy flight, yellow underwings and tail, and white rump making them easy to identify.  

Their rather slow, predictable flight makes them fairly easy for Peregrine Falcons and other raptors to grab, which is why their brilliant and sturdy feathers are so often picked up along shorelines. We can watch flickers migrating by day, but they also migrate by night, which we know from the carcasses we pick up in the morning beneath lighted buildings and towers. Mortality during migration is apparently high, but according to the Bird Banding Laboratory, some have lived over 9 years, and Kennard's "Longevity Records of North American Birds," published in Bird-Banding in 1975 listed one flicker who had survived 12 years 5 months.

Fortunately, flickers were once very abundant species, because throughout their range, their population is declining rather dramatically. I once rescued one bird that was entangled in monofilament and hopelessly snagged on a tree trunk. Fortunately, when I cut it free of the fishing line, it was sturdy and healthy enough to fly off. 

Northern Flicker tangled in monofilament

Their numbers may be smaller than in previous decades, but of an August or September day, they still gather on the ground, these quintessential birds of late summer, the very species Roger Tory Peterson cited when saying birds are the most vivid representation of life itself. Seeing them this time of year, my thoughts always travel back in time to that memorable first birding trip to Port Wing, Wisconsin, lo those 45 years ago.  

Common Flicker