The woodpecker with a taste for ants

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A woodpecker commonly seen in the Rock River Valley is the northern flicker, which was formerly called the yellow-shafted flicker. The flicker is a bird that many individuals do not realize is a bona fide member of the woodpecker clan. Most other woodpeckers spend the majority of their time hammering away at trees (or the side of your house) with their long, chisel-like beak, but the flicker is more at home on the ground searching and probing for insects.

Sometime during the evolutionary development of this bird, it acquired a definite taste for ants that has endured until the present. When ants are plentiful, the flicker will feed almost exclusively on them. An ornithologist once pumped more than 5,000 of these small insects from the stomach of a flicker he had trapped for research purposes. Entomologists have cited the flicker for assisting in the control of the dreaded, imported fire ant in the southern and southwestern states.

Ants are characterized by the fact their body fluid contains the caustic substance formic acid, which makes them all but unpalatable for most other animals. The flicker, however, couldn’t care less about this as a special ingredient of its saliva effectively neutralizes the toxic substance.

The northern flicker is a rather large bird and is the second largest woodpecker in the eastern United States (the pileated woodpecker is the largest). Being nearly a foot in length, the flicker is easily spotted as it gallivants about the landscape in a galloping-like flight. A white spot at the base of the tail is alternately exposed and covered during flight. The yellow in the wings is most obvious when it takes off as is the aforementioned white spot. It has a rich tan-brown general color and a small red spot on the back of the head. And there is a black crescent on the breast. There are dark streaks on its back and numerous black spots beneath.

The only outward difference between the male and female is that the former has a black “mustache” extending backward from the corners of its beak. Flickers apparently use this characteristic to recognize the sex of another flicker. Some years ago, a scientist interested in the mating habits of this bird captured the female of a mated pair and painted a black mustache on her. When she returned to the nest, her mate was outraged at the interloping “male” and unceremoniously kicked “him” out.

Flickers nest in cavities in trees, and if one is on the nest, and if you rap on the tree trunk below, it will stick its head out to see who is knocking at the door.

Five to nine glossy white eggs are normally laid, but flickers are what biologists call indeterminate layers. If all the eggs but one are removed from the nest, the female will continue to lay about another egg a day, at least for several weeks. One bird is reported to have laid 71 eggs in 73 days. The female apparently must have at least one egg remaining in the nest to somehow stimulate her ovary to produce additional ones (female birds have only one ovary). If all of the eggs are removed from the nest, egg production ceases.

A subspecies of the common northern yellow-shafted flicker exists mainly in the West. The major morphological difference between the two is the “mustache” of the western male is red instead of black. Where the ranges of the two overlap at the western edge of the Great Basin, interbreeding occurs and fertile hybrids are produced. The subspecies concept is a classification category that indicates two species are evolving but have not yet achieved genetic isolation.

The flicker is a good friend of man because, in addition to its proclivity for eating harmful ants, it is one of the few birds that also devours with relish the European corn borer, which at times can menace the corn crop of the Midwest.

The state of Alabama thinks so highly of the flicker that it has been named the official state bird. Those who have spent time there know there are a lot of fire ants in Alabama.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the June 8-14, 2005, issue

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