Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Flicker or Yellow-Hammer

Teacher's Story

THE first time I ever saw a flicker I said, "What a wonderful meadow-lark and what is it doing on that ant hill?" But, another glance revealed to me a red spot on the back of the bird's neck, and as soon as I was sure that it was not a bloody gash, I knew that it marked no meadow-lark. The top of the flicker's head and its back are slaty-gray, which is much enlivened by a bright red band across the nape of the neck. The tail is black above and yellow tipped with black below; the wings are black, but have a beautiful luminous yellow beneath, which is very noticeable during flight. There is a locket adorning the breast which is a thin, black crescent, much narrower than that of the meadow-lark. Below the locket, the breast is yellowish white thickly marked with circular, black spots. The throat and sides of the head are pinkish brown, and the male has a black mustache extending backward from the beak with a very fashionable droop. Naturally enough the female, although she resembles her spouse, lacks his mustache. The beak is long, strong, somewhat curved and dark colored. This bird is distinctly larger than the robin. The white patch on the rump shows little or none when the bird is at rest, for this white mark is a "color call," it being a rear signal by means of which the flock of migrating birds are able to keep together in the night. The yellow-hammer's flight is wave-like and jerky and quite different from that of the meadow-lark; nor does it stay so constantly in the meadows but often frequents woods and orchards.


Young flickers "Two is company, three is a crowd."

Photo by J. M. Schreck.

The flicker has many names, such as golden-winged woodpecker, yellow-hammer, high-hole, yarup, wake-up, clape and many others. It earned the name of high-hole because of its habit of excavating its nest high up in trees, usually between ten and twenty-five feet from the ground. It especially loves an old apple tree as a site for a nest, and most of our large old orchards can boast of a pair of these handsome birds during the nesting season of May and June. The flicker is not above renting any house he finds vacant, excavated by some other birds last year. He earned his name of yarup or wake-up from his spring song, which is a rollicking, jolly "wick-a, wick-a, wick-a-wick," a song commonly heard the last of March or early April. The chief food of the flicker is ants, although it also eats beetles, flies and wild fruit, but does little or no damage to planted crops. So long has it fed upon ants, that its tongue has become modified, like that of the ant-eater; it is covered with a sticky substance; and when it is thrust into an ant hill, all of the little citizens, disturbed in their communal labors, at once bravely attack the intruder and become glued fast to it, and are thus withdrawn and transferred to the capacious stomach of the bird. It has been known to eat three thousand ants at a single meal.

Those who have observed the flicker during the courting season declare him to be the most silly and vain of all bird wooers. Mr. Baskett says: "When he wishes to charm his sweetheart he mounts a small twig near her, and lifts his wings, spreads his tail, and begins to nod right and left as he exhibits his mustache to his charmer. He sets his jet locket first on one side of the twig and then on the other. He may even go so far as to turn his head half around to show her the pretty spot on his back hair. In doing all this he performs the most ludicrous antics and has the silliest expression of face and voice as if in losing his heart, as some one phrases it, he had lost his head also."

The nest hole is quite deep and the white eggs are from four to ten in number. The feeding of the young flickers is a painful process to watch. The parent takes the food into its own stomach and partially digests it, then thrusting its own bill down the throat of the young one it pumps the soft food into it "kerchug, kerchug," until it seems as if the young one must be shaken to its foundations. The young flickers, as soon as they leave the nest, climb around freely on the home tree in a delightful, playful manner.


Flicker coming from the nest.

Photo by George Fiske, Jr.

Lesson XVII

The Flicker

Leading thought—The flicker is a true woodpecker but has changed its habits and spends much of its time in meadows hunting for ants and other insects; it makes its nest in trees, like its relatives. It can be distinguished from the meadow-lark by the white patch above the tail which shows during flight.

Methods—This is one of the most important of birds of the meadow and the work may be done in September when there are plenty of young flickers, which have not learned to be wary. The observations may be made in the field, a few questions given at a time.


1. Where do you find the flicker in the summer and early autumn? How can you tell it from the meadow-lark in color and in flight?

2. What is it doing in the meadows? How does it manage to trap ants?

3. What is the size of the flicker as compared to the robin? What is its general color as compared to the meadow-lark?

4. Describe the colors of the flicker as follows: Top and sides of the head, back of the neck, lower back, tail, wings, throat and breast. The color and shape of the beak. Is there a difference in markings between the males and females?

5. Does the patch of white above the tail show, except when the bird is flying? Of what use is this to the bird?

6. What is the flicker's note? At what time of spring do you hear it first?

7. Where does the flicker build its nest and how? What is the color of the eggs? How many are there?

8. How does it feed its young? How do the young flickers act?

9. How many names do you know for the flicker?

Supplementary reading—"The Bird of Many Names," Nestlings of Forest and Marsh; A Fellow of Expedients, Long; Our Birds and Their Nestlings, p. 187; Audubon Leaflet No. 5.

The high-hole appears to drum more promiscuously than does the downy. He utters his long, loud spring call, whick-whick-whick, and then begins to rap with his beak upon his perch before the last note has reached your ear. I have seen him drum sitting upon the ridge of the barn. The log-cock, or pileated woodpecker, the largest and wildest of our Northern species, I have never heard drum. His blows should wake the echoes.

When the woodpecker is searching for food, or laying siege to some hidden grub, the sound of his hammering is dead or muffled, and is heard but a few yards. It is only upon dry, seasoned timber, freed of its bark, that he beats his reveille to spring and woos his mate.

—Birds, Bees and Sharp Eyes, John Burroughs.

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