Back to Nature (Published on - March 2, 2006)
The flight of the northern flicker
You know that moment after the rains, when the clouds begin to melt away and, in a split second, the leaves turn from drab-gray to silvery-green?

Where once the bark of a tree appeared in damp, lifeless blacks and browns, the sun reveals chartreuse moss, orange and blue-gray lichen, plus a whole new dimension of nooks and crannies. As the light casts vertical shafts on prisms of moisture, as translucent petals spread to capture the sun’s warmth, your eyes widen to take it all in.

As each moment passes a new moment is formed. What we thought as being one thing is replaced by another.

And so it was when I took a second look at a plain looking brown bird on a nearby tree. I was around 10 years old. The morning had begun with a thick fog after a nighttime drenching rain. Water dripped upon my shoulders while my boots stained wet. My mood that day matched the dreariness of the weather. I walked quietly and pensive.

Just then a bird’s song captured my attention, a loud wicker, wicker, wicker that penetrated every inch of the forest. I moved closer. I could see a red band at the back of the bird’s grayish head. It had black bars and spots on its back.

He hammered at a crevice in a nearby tree extracting a fairly large sized ant. I quietly moved a little closer when he caught sight of me and burst into flight. In that flash of a moment, the northern flicker became my favorite bird.

At this same instant, the sun suddenly broke between the clouds reaching the darkened leaves, transforming them into translucent yellows and paper thin greens. Long shafts of sunlight stabbed through the fog. The flicker spread its wings to reveal the same kind of unexpected surprise, for tucked underneath those drab wings and tail, bright yellow flashed as if a painter had spilled his brush of sunlight. For short distances, the flicker’s flight was a series of undulating body motions, but when he decided to fly over the field, he flew with the grace of a soaring eagle.

The large, active northern flicker, Colaptes auratus, formally known as the yellow-shafted flicker, is a woodpecker that lives in all of eastern North America, including northern Canada, over to Alaska, east of the Rockies, and is very similar to the gilded flicker that lives in the southwestern United States and the red-shafted that lives west of the Rockies. These three types of flickers used to be separated by open plains but now cross over, interbreeding combining features of all forms.

The males have black mustaches, the breast on male and female is pale buff to yellow with small black crescents, the head is beige to gray with a red patch at the back. Females lack red or black moustachial stripe.

The well-established northern flicker returns to the same breeding grounds year after year. If you hear a drumming on your roof or siding it just might be a male flicker trying to attract a mate. Once the couple is paired, the mother usually lays six to eight white eggs. Both parents take part in the rearing of the babies.

Flickers prefer wooded areas but have established themselves with great success in suburban areas, as well. Like all woodpeckers, flickers can be found searching for food in the trees, but you may also catch a glimpse of this bird ground-feeding. No human could see one of these beautiful birds without taking second notice.

As each moment passes, a new moment is formed. What we thought as being one thing is replaced by another. For in that moment that young girl stood under a sodden tree on rain-soaked ground, and the sun broke through the canopy to warm her forehead, so was the little brown bird who opened his wings of sunshine and warmed a child’s heart and imagination forever ... back to nature.

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