Whether it’s referring to a woodpecker, football chant or cocktail, the term “yellowhammer” is synonymous with the state of Alabama. Since becoming an official state emblem in 1927, the bird form of the word (also known as a “yellow-shafted northern flicker”) remains a local wildlife favorite for ornithologists and amateurs alike.
BOTTOM-FEEDERS Unlike other woodpeckers that feed in trees, yellowhammers find much of their diet on the ground. They consume a variety of nuts, insects — especially ants, which they lap up with their long, spear-like tongues — and berries, particularly those of poison ivy plants.
DANCE OFF In an extravagant mating ritual, a prospective mate watches as two rival birds duel for affection. The flickers will bob their heads in time while letting out a loud “wicka” call. Once paired, both sexes share the burden of childcare, as mother and father incubate and feed their young.
IN PLAIN SIGHT Though they are one of the most visible birds in Alabama and exist here year-round, yellowhammers are showing a nearly 1.5 percent decline in populations per year, possibly as a result of pesticide use and the loss of forestland in the eastern U.S.
BLACK BEARD One way to determine the gender is by looking for a black, mustache-like stripe that extends from the sides of the beak exclusively in male northern flickers.
MEAN BOYS The term yellowhammer gained traction as a state symbol of Alabama during the Civil War after Confederate soldiers from Hunstville joined a unit in Kentucky. The unusual bright yellow trimming sewn onto the Alabama uniforms led the Kentucky boys to call out “Yellowhammer!” in jest.
ROOST Nests are built in trees, stumps, poles or even nest boxes. The male chooses the site and (with help from his mate) excavates it in 15 to 28 days.
Tracking Down Tweety
Avid birder and Dauphin Island resident Don McKee suggests these ways to identify the yellow-shafted northern flicker:
- Remember its specific set of markings. “There’s a black bib on the chest. Below that is black spotting, kind of like polka dots, ” McKee says. Going down its back, find a “warm brown color and markings like the rungs of a ladder.” It also has a bright white color on its rump (the area just above the tail).
- Be on the lookout for a hint of its signature sunny hue. “The underwing is going to show you the yellow, which you would only see while the bird is in flight – unless you’ve got really good binoculars.”
- Look down. “Whereas most birds feed on the side of trees, you’ll often find northern flickers on the ground.” McKee says.
- Use your head. “When you see the long, sharp bill, that should make you think woodpecker. And it’s an easy call from there, since the northern flicker is a brown color, and most other woodpeckers in the area are black and white.”
- To take advantage of some of the best birding in this part of the U.S., check out the skies and shores of Dauphin Island. McKee encourages first-time birders to go with a group such as the Coastal Birding Association (coastalbirdingassoc.org).
text by HALEY POTTS • illustration by kelan mercer