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XVI

THE FLICKER


FLICKER
1. Male    2. Females

THE flicker is the largest of our common American woodpeckers, being somewhat longer and stouter than the robin. It is known, by sight at least, to almost every one who notices birds at all, and perhaps for this reason it has received an unusual number of popular names. “Golden-winged woodpecker,” which is probably the best known of these, comes from the fact that the bird’s wings are yellow on the under side. “Harry Wicket,” “Highhole,” — because its nest is sometimes pretty far above the ground, — Yellowhammer,” and “Pigeon-woodpecker” are also among its more familiar nicknames.

Unlike other birds of its family, the flicker passes much of its time on the ground, where it hops awkwardly about, feeding upon insects, especially upon ants. As you come near it, while it is thus engaged, it rises with a peculiar purring sound, and as it flies from you it shows a broad white patch on its rump — the lower back, above the root of the tail. Every one who has ever walked much over grassy fields must have seen the bird and been struck by this conspicuous light mark. .He must have noticed, too, the bird’s peculiar up-and-down, “jumping” manner of flight, by which it goes swooping across the country in long undulations or waves.

The flicker’s general color is brown, with spot tings and streakings of black, and more or less of violet or lilac shading. On the back of its neck it wears a band of bright scarlet, and across its breast is a conspicuous black crescent.

It is fond of old apple orchards, and often makes its nest in a decaying trunk. In some places, near the seashore, especially, — where it is commoner than elsewhere in winter, and where large trees are scarce, — it makes enemies by its habit of drilling holes in barns and even in churches. I remember a meeting-house on Cape Cod which had a good number of such holes in its front wall — or rather it had the scars of such holes, for they had been covered with patches of tin. That was a case where going to church might be called a bad habit.

In fall and winter, if not at other seasons, the flicker feeds largely upon berries. In years when the poison ivy bears a good crop, I am pretty sure to find two or three flickers all winter long about a certain farm, the stone walls of which are overrun with this handsome but un wholesome vine, although it is hard to imagine that the dry, stony fruit should yield much in the way of nourishment, even to a woodpecker.

As spring comes on, the flicker becomes numerous and very noisy. His best known vocal effort is a prolonged hi-hi-hi, very loud and ringing, and kept up until the listener wonders where the author of it gets his wind. This, I think, is the bird’s substitute for a song. He has at all times a loud, unmusical yawp, — a signal, I suppose, — and in the mating season especially he utters a very affectionate, conversational wicker or flicker. Every country boy should be familiar with these three notes.

But besides being a vocalist, — we can hardly call him a singer, — the flicker is a player upon instruments. He is a great drummer; and if any one imagines that woodpeckers do not enjoy the sound of their own music, he should watch a flicker drumming with his long bill on a battered tin pan in the middle of a pasture. Morn ing after morning I have seen one thus engaged, drumming lustily, and then cocking his head to listen for an answer; and Paderewski at his daily practice upon the piano could not have looked more in earnest. At other times the flicker contents himself with a piece of resonant loose bark or a dry limb.

One proof that this drumming — which is indulged in by woodpeckers generally — is a true musical performance, and not a mere drill ing for grubs, is the fact that we never hear it in winter. It begins as the weather grows mild, and is as much a sign of spring as the peeping of the little tree-frogs — hylas — in the meadow.

The flicker’s nest, as I have said, is built in a hole in a tree, often an apple-tree. Very noisy in his natural disposition, he keeps a wise silence while near the spot where his mate is sitting, and will rear a brood under the orchard-owner’s nose without betraying himself. The young birds are fed from the parent’s crop, as young pigeons-and young hummingbirds are. The old bird thrusts its bill down the throat of the nestling and gives it a meal of partially digested food by what scientific people call a process of regurgitation. Farmers’ boys, who have watched pigeons feeding their squabs, will know precisely what is meant.


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