The Flaming Woodpecker

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There is a largish brown bird alighting on the lawn. It crouches, scans the yard’s perimeter, and proceeds to stab and flick the soil with its bill, which is sharp-looking and slightly decurved. It rips at the grass, pecking at insects hidden below. There is a sound, a creaking-open of a screen door to a house. The bird pauses in its rooting and tilts its head. The door creaks shut. Alarmed, the bird takes off for the trees, its primaries flashing reddish-orange, its backside a glimpse of white. “Ki ki ki ki,” it cries, and is lost to the canopy.

The Red-shafted Northern Flicker is fairly big for a woodpecker, intermediate in size between a robin and a crow. They are noticeable, attractive birds. Adult plumage is a brownish-gray, and both sexes are elegantly barred and mottled with solid black pendants across the breast. There is a white patch on the rump and a splash of red on the nape. The males have bright red malars—the patch of feathers on either cheek—and appear jauntily mustachioed.

To see this most commonplace of woodpeckers, resident of suburbs and metropolitan sprawl, it helps to look near the ground. Flickers have all the tools of the woodpecker trade—stiff-bristled tail to prop up against trees, zygodactyl feet (two toes facing forward, two facing back) for clinging to bark, a long, flanged tongue to capture wood-boring insects, a propensity to hammer against objects to communicate with one another and establish territory—but they defy convention and prefer to forage on the ground. They eat ants, mostly, but will also take just about any other insect, as well as the occasional seed or fruit. Flickers hop along near the ground, tearing at ant mounds, digging at rotting stumps, and it is not uncommon to flush one up from where it is feeding.

Flickers are known by at least a dozen different names, including partridge woodpecker, clape, gaffer, harry-wicket, heigh-ho, wake-up, wick-up, yarrup, and gawker-bird. Most of these are onomatopoetic renderings derived from the bird’s calls. In Alabama, where the yellow-shafted subspecies occurs, the birds are called yellowhammers, and they share state-bird status with the Wild Turkey. The Canadian French call it pic flamboyant, “flaming woodpecker”—a name that perfectly describes the bird in flight.