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The Alabama State Bird
Northern Flicker
(also known as the Yellowhammer)

Should you see a large bird with a striking white rump, brightly colored underwings, and spotted breast suddenly take flight from a treeless meadow, you would be looking at a Northern Flicker-a type of woodpecker that, compared with its tree-drumming kin, is a bit of an oddball.

Alabama  State Bird - Click the Flicker to enlarge.
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Alabama State Bird - Northern Flicker

Spending a great deal of time on the ground, the flicker searches for insects, fallen fruits, seeds-and above all for ants, of which it consumes more than any other North American bird. (Its tongue, which extends nearly three inches beyond its beak, is ideally suited to this purpose.) The flicker still uses trees for nesting, of course, but has also adapted well to farmlands, parks, and other more open habitats, where it may burrow into fence posts, utility poles, or barn sides, or under the eaves of houses. In the Southwest, it even makes use of the giant saguaro cactus.

Northern flickers occur throughout North America, but their appearance differs in various regions, and they are known by more than a hundred local names. In the East lives the yellow-shafted, with yellow under the wings and tail and a black mustache; in the West is the red-shafted, noted for its red underwings, undertail, and mustache; and in the Southwest lives the gilded, similar to the eastern bird but with a red mustache. Where their ranges overlap, different flickers sometimes interbreed, creating even more mixtures of their varied characteristics.

Recognition. 10-14 in. long. Upperparts barred with black and tan; breast band black; rump white. Eastern males have black mustache, yellow flash in wings. Western males have red mustache, reddish flash in wings. Southwestern males have red mustache, yellow flash in wings. Females similar but lack mustache.
Habitat. Woodlands, deserts, and suburbs.
Nesting. Eggs 3-14, white, laid in cavity 8-100 ft. above ground in tree or cactus. Incubation about 12 days, by both sexes. Young leave nest 25-28 days after hatching.
Food. Ants and other insects; fruits

HISTORY

Alabama is the only state with a woodpecker for a state bird. The yellowhammer was adopted on September 6, 1927. It is more properly called a Northern Flicker. The yellow-shafted variety is considered Alabama’s state bird. Alabama had become known as the “Yellowhammer State” since the Civil War. Some say the name recalls an incident that occurred during the Civil War.

A company of young cavalry soldiers from Huntsville, arrived at Hopkinsville, Kentucky, under the command of Rev. D.C. Kelly. The men wore bits of brilliant yellow cloth on the sleeves, collars, and coat tails of their fine new uniforms.

Soldiers who had been fighting for a long time wore uniforms that were worn and faded. When they saw the new arrivals, one of them called out, “Yellerhammer, Yellerhammer, flicker, flicker!” The greeting provoked a roar of laughter. The Huntsville soldiers were later spoken of as the “yellowhammer company.” In time, all Alabama soldiers became known as “Yellowhammers.”

According to the Alabama Department of Conservation, Alabama soldiers were called “yellowhammers” because of the color of their homespun uniforms. They had no commercial dyes, so colored their uniforms with the juice of hickory bark.

After the war, the Confederate Veterans in Alabama were organized. They were proud to bear the name “Yellowhammers.” They even wore a yellowhammer feather in their caps or lapels during reunions. They said the black dots on the bird’s breast reminded them of bullet holes, and it seemed to be wearing a red bandana on its neck. The yellowhammer’s gray feathers also matched the gray uniforms most Confederate soldiers wore.

For Alabama’s flickers, life was easier during the Civil War. There were more dead trees for them to nest in. Today, flickers are also decreasing because of pesticides used to kill fire ants.

The following article is by John James Audubon, often referred to as the "Father of American Ornithology". The National Audubon Society, one of America's leading conservation organizations, was named for him.

THE GOLDEN-WINGED WOODPECKER.
Northern Flicker or Yellowhammer
by
John James Audubon

It is generally agreeable to be in the company of individuals who are naturally animated and pleasant. For this reason, nothing can be more gratifying than the society of Woodpeckers in the forests. To prove this to you, kind reader, I shall give you a full account of the habits of the Golden-winged Woodpecker.

This species, which is usually called Pique-bois jaune by the French settlers in Louisiana, and receives the name of High-holder, Yucker, and Flicker in other parts of the Union, being seldom or never graced with the epithet Golden-winged, employed by naturalists, is one of the most lively of our birds, and is found over the whole of the United States.

No sooner has spring called them to the pleasant duty of making love, as it is called, than their voice, which, by the way, is not at all disagreeable to the ear of man, is heard from the tops of high decayed trees, proclaiming with delight the opening of the welcome season. Their note at this period is merriment itself, as it imitates a prolonged and jovial laugh, heard at a considerable distance. Several males pursue a female, reach her, and, to prove the force and truth of their love, bow their heads, spread their tail, and move sidewise, backwards and forwards, performing such antics, as might induce any one witnessing them, if not of a most morose temper, to join his laugh to theirs. The female flies to another tree, where she is closely followed by one, two, or even half a dozen of these gay suitors, and where again the same ceremonies are gone through. No fightings occur, no jealousies seem to exist among these beaux, until a marked preference is shewn to some individual, when the rejected proceed in search of another female. In this manner all the Golden-winged Woodpeckers are soon happily mated. Each pair immediately proceed to excavate the trunk of a tree, and finish a hole in it sufficient to contain themselves and their young. They both work with great industry and apparent pleasure. Should the male, for instance, be employed, the female is close to him, and congratulates him on the removal of every chip which his bill sends through the air. While he rests, he appears to be speaking to her on the most tender subjects, and when fatigued, is at once assisted by her. In this manner, by the alternate exertions of each, the hole is dug and finished. They caress each other on the branches, climb about and around the tree with apparent delight, rattle with their bill against the tops of the dead branches, chase all their cousins the Red-heads, defy the Purple Grackles to enter their nest, feed plentifully on ants, beetles and larvae, cackling at intervals, and ere two weeks have elapsed, the female lays either four or six eggs, the whiteness and transparency of which are doubtless the delight of her heart. If to raise a numerous progeny may contribute to happiness, these Woodpeckers are in this respect happy enough, for they have two broods each season; and as this might induce you to imagine Woodpeckers extremely abundant in our country, I may at once tell you that they are so.

Even in confinement, the Golden-winged Woodpecker never suffers its naturally lively spirit to droop. It feeds well, and by way of amusement, will continue to destroy as much furniture in a day as can well be mended by a different kind of workman in two. Therefore, kind reader, do not any longer believe that Woodpeckers are such stupid, forlorn, dejected and unprovided for beings as they have hitherto been represented. In fact, I know not one of the species found in our extensive woods, that does not exhibit quite as much mirth and gaiety as the present bird. They are serviceable birds in many points of view, and therefore are seldom shot at, unless by idlers; their flesh, moreover, not being very savoury. They have ample range, and wherever they alight, there is to be found the food to which they at all times give decided preference.

The flight of this species is strong and prolonged, being performed in a straighter manner than that of any other of our Woodpeckers. They propel themselves by numerous beats of the wings, with short intervals of sailing, during which they scarcely fall from the horizontal. Their migrations, although partial, as many remain even in the middle districts during the severest winters, are performed under night, as is known by their note and the whistling of their wings, which are heard from the ground, although by no means so distinctly as when they fly from a tree or from the earth, when suddenly alarmed. When passing from one tree to another on wing, they also fly in a straight line, until within a few yards of the spot on which they intend to alight, when they suddenly raise themselves a few feet, and fasten themselves to the bark of the trunk by their claws and tail. If they intend to settle on a branch, which they as frequently do, they do not previously rise; but in either case, no sooner has the bird alighted, if it be not pursued or have suspicions of any object about it, than it immediately nods its head, and utters its well-known note, "Flicker." It easily moves sidewise on a small branch, keeping itself as erect as other birds usually do; but with equal ease does it climb by leaps along the trunks of trees or their branches, descend, and move sidewise or spirally, keeping at all times its head upwards, and its tail pressed against the bark as a support.

On the ground, where it frequently alights, it hops with great ease. This, however, it does merely to pick up a beetle, a caterpillar, a grain of corn dropt by a squirrel from the ear in the fields, or to enable it to examine the dead roots of trees, or the side of a prostrate log, from which it procures ants and other small insects. It is also fond of various fruits and berries. Apples, grapes, persimmons and dogwood berries seem quite agreeable to it, and it does not neglect the young corn of the farmer's field. Even poke-berries or huckle-berries answer its purpose at times, and during winter it is a frequenter of the corn-cribs.

In this species, as in a few others, there is a singular arrangement in the colouring of the feathers of the upper part of the head, which I conceive it necessary for me to state, that it may enable persons better qualified than myself to decide as to the reasons of such arrangement. The young of this species frequently have the whole upper part of the head tinged with red, which at the approach of winter disappears, when merely a circular line of that colour is to be observed on the hind part, becoming of a rich silky vermilion tint. The Hairy, Downy and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are subject to the same extraordinary changes, which, as far as I know, never reappear at any future period of their lives. I was at first of opinion that this change appeared only on the head of the male birds, but on dissection I found it equally affecting both sexes. I am induced to believe, that, in consequence of this, many young Woodpeckers of different species have been described and figured as forming distinct species themselves. I have shot dozens of young Woodpeckers in this peculiar state of plumage, which, on being shewn to other persons, were thought by them to be of different species from what the birds actually were. This occurrence is the more worthy of notice, as it is exhibited on all the species of this genus on the heads of which, when in full plumage, a very narrow line exists.

Racoons and Black-snakes are dangerous enemies to this bird. The former frequently put one of their fore legs into the hole where it has nestled or retired to rest, and if the hole be not too deep, draw out the eggs and suck them, and frequently by the same means secure the bird itself. The Black-snake contents itself with the eggs or young. Several species of Hawks attack them on the wing, and as the Woodpeckers generally escape by making for a hole in the nearest tree, it is pleasing to see the disappointment of the Hawk, when, as it has just been on the point of seizing the terrified bird, the latter dives, as it were, into the hole. Should the Woodpecker not know of a hole near enough to afford it security, it alights on a trunk, and moves round it with such celerity as frequently to enable it to elude its pursuer.

Their flesh is esteemed good by many of the sportsmen of the Middle Districts, and is frequently eaten. 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.

The neck of this species is larger than that of any other with which I am acquainted, and consequently the skin of this bird is more easily pulled over the head, which it is difficult to do in the other species, on account of the slenderness of their neck, and the great size of the head.

This species visits the Fur Countries in summer, advancing as far north as Great Bear Lake, and, according to Dr. RICHARDSON, resorting in the greatest numbers to the plains of the Saskatchewan, where it frequents open downs, and feeds on larva. Mr. TOWNSEND has traced it high on the upper Missouri, but saw none near the Columbia, where it is represented by the Red-shafted Woodpecker, which is there as abundant as the present species is in our Eastern Districts. I have met with it from Texas to the northern extremity of Nova Scotia, but saw none in Labrador. The eggs measure an inch and a twelfth in length, by nearly seven-eighths in breadth. Mr. T. MACCULLOCH has favoured me with the following notice respecting this species.

"While rambling through the woods one afternoon with my brothers, I observed a considerable quantity of chips, which seemed, from the freshness of their colour, to have been but recently detached from the tall decayed stump, at the foot of which they were laid. A glance at a round hole near the top of the stump was sufficient to apprize us of their origin, and a few smart raps upon the trunk brought a Golden-winged Woodpecker to the aperture, to ascertain the cause of the disturbance below. Having eyed us for a moment, he jerked himself out, and flew to the top of a neighbouring tree, where, uttering a few shrill notes, he was immediately joined by his mate, and both seemed anxiously to watch all our movements while we remained near the cradle of their future progeny. By us the possession of one of these beautiful birds had long been ardently desired, and we determined not to permit the present opportunity to pass unimproved. The situation of the nest was therefore carefully marked, and we resolved to return when the young birds should be fully fledged, and secure one at least as our lawful prize. During the interval the nest was often visited, and many plans were formed to effect our purpose, but when the period which we supposed necessary had expired, we discovered with no little mortification that the stump was too much decayed to be climbed with safety, and too insecure to admit of any thing being applied to facilitate the ascent. To overturn the nest was the only way then by which we could obtain the object of our wishes. To effect this all our strength was exerted, so that we soon had the satisfaction of seeing the stump yield, and eventually give way with a heavy crash, by which it was broken into many pieces. Eager to secure our prize, we hastened to the spot, but conceive our disappointment when, instead of the full-fledged birds which we expected to obtain, a large number of naked objects, apparently just out of the shell, some of them scarcely half the size of others, and all with their eyes yet unopened, lay scattered upon the ground. This was a result which we had never anticipated, and disappointment quickly yielded to strong feelings of compunction, as we surveyed the poor sightless creatures writhing their necks and quivering under the severity of the shock. To repair the mischief, if possible, the fragments of the nest were speedily gathered and neatly joined, and having collected the brood for the purpose of replacing it, we were astonished to find that the nest had contained the almost incredible number of eighteen young birds, besides three eggs, which still remained unbroken, notwithstanding the violence of the fall. For this singular instance of fecundity I am wholly unable to account, unless by the supposition that, from the nest being in the immediate vicinity of a public road, one of the birds had been shot after the usual deposit of eggs had been made. The survivor having procured another mate, an addition was made to the number of eggs, and most probably from the same cause a third, ere the work of incubation commenced. The vigour of one of the parents being impaired may perhaps explain the diversity of size, while the eggs which remained were probably the first deposited, but in which the vital principle had become extinct ere the last was laid. Perhaps it may be interesting to mention that our efforts to repair the injury were not attended by the result that we desired. Upon a subsequent visit the whole brood was found cold and dead; and if the parent birds had ever re-entered their prostrate nest, it was merely to witness the devastation we had wrought, and then to abandon it for ever."

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