Posted by: atowhee | February 4, 2008

Encounter wherein Flicker flicks and finally I get the name


Photo by May Woon. This appears to be a female, no red moustache. 

Is it possible the great-grandfather of American ornithology was wrong?  In his BIRD BIOGRAPHIES, really transcribed by Audubon but written by William Macgillivray of Scotland, Audubon writes of the “Yellow-shafted Woodpecker” and says one of its nicknames is “Flicker.”  Here’s his explanation in Volume IV:

“No sooner has the bird alighted, is it be not sursued or have suspicions of any object about, then it immediately nods its head, and utters its well-known note, ‘Flicker’.” 

 Here’s what I found at an online etymology site: 

flicker (n.) Look up flicker at
“woodpecker,” 1808 Amer.Eng., possibly echoic of bird’s note, or from white spots on plumage that seem to flicker as it flits from tree to tree.
flicker (v.) Look up flicker at
O.E. flicorian “to flutter, flap quickly and lightly,” originally of birds.
 Onomatopoeic of quick motion. Sense of “shine with a wavering light” is 
 1605, but not common till 19c. “

I watched a Flicker at his meal this morning.  Specifically this male was eating from a suet feeder in our garden.  He was thirty feet away and through my binoculars I could see in detail his method.  We all know the Flickers are consummate consumer of ants and the like.  For that they are equipped with long and sticky tongues.  And that was exactly how Mr. Flicker fed.  He was…ready for this…FLICKing his tongue out and picking off pieces of suet to eat.  If ever there were a flicking bird it was this Flicker eating the suet.  Thus shall I presume that Audubon was most certainly wrong and even if the woodpecker seemsd to flicker when he flies (which I doubt, though his white rump patch does shine forth when he’s in retreat), I shall know the Flicker by his flicking, NOT any flickering.

 The BNA gives no help with the origin of the bird’s name.  It does explain the five sub-species and the plumage variations across the Northern Flicker’s range from Alaska to Central America and into the Caribbean.

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