I just had my first “Annual April Flicker Sighting” while at my smoking haunt on the grounds of Osgoode Hall. For about two weeks every April the past five or six years, a flicker shows up here and hangs out on the far side of the lawn near the gardener’s ramp eating ants out of the ground – poke, poke, poke with his beak – then scurries back into the cover of the shrubs lest he be seen. It’s a yearly rite of passage, a sure sign that spring is here and all is (mostly) right with the world.
Flickers are my favourite bird for a number of reasons, having to do with their muted but splendid appearance, their unusual, shy behaviour and the memory they bring of my father, who was a big birder. I even like the name – flicker – as in, “You brought her, you flick her.”
It’s funny that they’re so timid, because they’re a good size (bigger than a robin) and are so well turned out. I always think of them as being designed by an English tailor, maybe Saville Row. Their back looks like a tweed jacket – sandy brown with dark cross-bars – sort of a herringbone. The breast is an off-white polka-dot shirt with black speckles and they have that black crescent around the neck that looks for all the world like an ascot. (As my father used to say whenever he saw anyone wearing one, “That poor fella has his ass caught around his neck.” His favourite line from The Bible was when somebody-or-other “tied his ass to a tree and walked into Bethlehem.” Man, what a card he was, I never even had a shot at “normal”.)
Flickers also have a long tail with pointed black and white feathers and then of course, there’s the headgear. The beautiful pearl-gray neck and head like a Homburg – and the brilliant red patch on the nape of the neck that looks like a feather in this hat. The face is a lovely honey-brown colour and the male has a black line on each cheek that forms a ‘moustache’ for this perfect English gent of a bird. Damn, they’re handsome, without being too bright or showy. If this makes me a “bird geek”, then so be it.
If this weren’t enough, there’s what happens when they take flight. The Eastern ones are a bright golden-yellow under the wings and tail and when they take off there’s a flash of this and the white rump, it’s quite spectacular. I got a small show of this today because there was a frisky squirrel bugging Mr. Flicker and he took off for a couple of short bursts. The Western ones have a different scheme – brown head, grey face with a bright red moustache and they’re salmon-rose underneath – the first time I saw one in B.C. I thought, salmon, how appropriate. There’s a desert variety called the “Gilded Flicker” that combines the colour scheme of the Western one with the yellow underparts of the Eastern guy and they nest in cacti. I’ve never been to the Arizona-New Mexico area, but one of the reasons I want to go is to see one of these babies, along with Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote of course.
Flickers are woodpeckers, but don’t act like typical ones. They’re the only woodpeckers who spend any time on the ground because terrestrial ants are a big part of their diet and they’re also the only ones you see actually perching on a branch instead of clinging to the bark and crawling up the trunk of a tree (though they do that too.) I read something about them in a bird-nerd book that’s almost spooky in its ingenious design. Apparently, whenever the adults are out gathering food and the shadow of a predator passes across the nest-hole, the baby flickers make a loud buzzing noise to make it sound like a hornet’s nest and scare the varmint off. Isn’t that just wild, amazing that they instinctively know to do that? To me it’s proof that there is a God, but he doesn’t waste much of his best stuff on us humans, who have proven to be far too idiotic to bother with much.
Seeing a flicker like today is always a thrill, it never gets old for me because it’s so fleeting and they’re so beautiful and dignified. I’ll never forget the first time I saw one, I was about eight and my dad and his buddy Frank took me to see a college football game played in Kew Gardens down in the beaches. This was a big deal for me and unusual, because mostly baseball was played in this park, which is lovely and full of big, old trees. After the game, we were walking through the park to the car and I spotted this handsome devil perched sideways on the trunk of an oak, down low at eye-level. My dad said it was a flicker and that was the beginning of my love-affair with them. This tiny flash of memory is as clear as a bell now even after all these years – thousands of days and billions of moments utterly gone and forgotten forever – but not this one, it’s like it happened yesterday. It always comes flooding back every time I see a flicker, a little bittersweet but not such a bad thing after all.
© 2013 – 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.