This isn’t a good time of year to be picking a bird of the week. There are just too many candidates.
The task was harder this week, because the week took me across North Dakota, from Grand Forks to Marmarth and from the Badlands to the Turtle Mountains. This wasn’t a birding trip, and I didn’t keep a list.
My companions were UND geography students; the trip was meant to bring them face to face with the state we’ve been studying together throughout the academic year. My role was driver, guide and storyteller.
Some of the students were interested in birds, and we tried to identify what we saw. Most of our sightings were drive-bys. We put 1,350 miles on each of our vehicles in three days.
Their projects included film locations, ghost towns, the Garrison Diversion project, the military frontier and Theodore Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota. When circumstances took us to the top of Sentinel Butte, just 10 miles east of the Montana border, we decided impulsively to add North Dakota’s high spots.
We heard western meadowlarks sing when we stopped to look at the New Rockford Canal, part of the Garrison project. Garrison Diversion was a plan to bring water to Devils Lake and to irrigation areas in the south-central part of the state.
At Manfred, a ghost town that is being rebuilt, we heard common snipe. They were not singing, however. Snipe noise is made by air rushing through their tail feathers as they dive from height—part of a territorial and courtship display.
On the grounds of the Game and Fish Department headquarters in Bismarck, we saw dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows, species that are migrating northward to breeding grounds near the tree line.
In wetlands along our route, we saw waterfowl in plenty, including mallards and buffleheads. We saw Canada geese. We saw flocks of tundra swans and snow geese, stragglers in a great migration that has mostly passed over North Dakota by this time.
In the Badlands, we watched Swainson’s hawks and spotted a golden eagle.
Often, we saw red-winged blackbirds and grackles, species so common they are hard to avoid.
And thinly spread across the landscape, we saw northern flickers. In fact, this was the most consistent and conspicuous species we encountered. They were recognizable by their flight pattern and the big patch of white on each of their rumps.
Flickers showed up frequently along our route. There were flickers on the state Capitol grounds when we emerged from our tour of the State Heritage Center and Museum. We saw flickers at Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Back on campus Monday, I saw flickers on the quad.
So the flicker reigns as bird of the week.
As you discern from this narrative, flickers are widespread. They aren’t especially sociable birds, however, and they are usually seen alone.
Of course, there is an exception. Big groups of flickers—I’ve seen more than 100 at a time — sometimes gather on open grassland. They forage there, much as robins do, taking bugs and grubs from the ground.
The usual view is of a flicker flying away. Then the bird appears to be a big block of white with brilliant yellow framing it. The yellow can be hard to see, because it is in the wings, and the flicker is a fast flier.
The yellow actually is in the shafts of the wing feathers, and this gave rise to an earlier name for the local variety of flicker, yellow-shafted flicker. Farther west, the shafts are red, and this variety is known as red-shafted flicker.
Yes, hybrids occur.
As with so many species, North Dakota lies astride the dividing line between these geographical varieties. Yellow-shafted flickers prevail across three-fourths of the state, maybe more. Red-shafted birds occur only in the far west.
The flicker is a kind of woodpecker, and this is clear from the shape of its body and the size of its bill—but not from its behavior much of the time. No other woodpecker spends so much time on the ground as the flicker.
Flickers also are notorious for their pounding. A flicker likes noise. Males beat on tree trunks, telephone poles and the sides of buildings. Once in awhile, a flicker will find an empty metal barrel and then create a fine din.
The flicker is pretty much ubiquitous in North America, except for the High Arctic and the desert.
The flicker is the state bird of Alabama, where it is known officially as the “yellowhammer.”