Speaking of Nature: The literary trifecta of birding

  • An adult male flicker (identified by the black "mustache" on the side of its neck) takes a moment to soak up the warmth of the morning sun. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Back to business, the flicker probes the recently thawed ground for any ants, or other delicious items, that might be lurking under ground. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Monday, April 30, 2018

Among the books in my personal library, there are three particular volumes that I rely upon as the “workhorses” of my birding information.

The first is “A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America” by Roger Tory Peterson. Woefully out of date, this fourth edition, issued in 1980, is kept as a memento of my personal birding education. It is also useful as a historical reference and is full of bird names that are no longer used.

The second book is a fifth edition of a “Field Guide to the Birds of North America by National Geographic.” Printed in 2006, this book covers all of North America and is quite helpful for identifying birds that I might see when I visit my Uncle Mort in Los Angeles. It also has more up-to-date information on bird names and more recent range maps for the species covered.

Finally, rounding out the trio, there is my copy of “The Sibley Guide to Birds” by the National Audubon Society. This book is especially meaningful to me because I had it with me when I met David Allen Sibley at a presentation he delivered to the Hampshire Birding Club. A first edition signed by its author, this book never goes outside, but it does get used almost every time I write about birds. The magic of this particular book is the beautiful illustrations of the multiple plumages seen in all the bird species of North America.

There are still other books that I might lean on for specialized information, but this particular trifecta is good for answering 99 percent of my questions. Let me give you an example of what I’m speaking of by taking a look at a familiar bird that recently made its first appearance of the year. The bird in question is the northern flicker.

First, I consult Peterson for the scientific name, which this aged book identifies as Colaptes auratus. Immediately, I see that the common name of the species has changed. Peterson identifies this bird as the “common flicker,” but acknowledges an even older name — the “yellow-shafted flicker.” Both National Geographic and National Audubon agree that the current name is “northern flicker” and all three volumes agree on the same scientific name.

All three books identify the flicker as a woodpecker, but Peterson is the only book to provide maps that are the largest, but on separate pages. All three confirm that northern flickers should be seen throughout the year in Massachusetts, but I seldom see these birds in the winter, which makes their reappearance (sometime in March or April) a noteworthy event.

All three books agree that the bird can be about 12 to 14 inches in length and that it has a loud call note that sounds sort of like the bird is saying, “Clear!” Another common vocalization is the repeated, “flick-a, flick-a, flick-a” notes, but the newer two books suggest it sounds like “wick-a, wick-a, wick-a.” At this point the Sibley book stops presenting life history information and focuses instead on those wonderful illustrations I mentioned earlier.

Peterson and National Geographic agree that northern flickers prefer open woodlands and other areas that might be described as suburban, but, interestingly enough, neither makes any mention of the 5 to 8 white eggs that females lay in excavated tree cavities, or the fact that flickers have a particular taste for ants. For that information, I must go even deeper into my library, but rest assured that the information is there.

Books can only tell you so much about the living bird, however. Facts are useful, perhaps even indispensable, but they cannot tell the entire story. Nowhere, for instance, was any detail provided about seeing a flicker up close.

I happened to spot my first flicker of 2018 on April 21, and it was the first time the sun had made an appearance in over a week. On April 19, I woke up to an unwelcome coating of snow on the deck, but two days later the snow was gone and in the bright light of an early morning sun, I saw a flicker in the lawn just outside my window. Oh, how my heart jumped at the sight of this beautiful creature and what it signified about the world.

Flickers are the only woodpeckers that regularly spend time on the ground and this particular bird seemed to be soaking up the sun with the same relish I would exhibit later that afternoon. As soon as its enjoyment was sated, the bird shifted to the business at hand and started vigorously jabbing at the ground in its search for something to eat. Hidden ant nests are often located in this manner. Then, as any one of us might do, the bird paused again, turned its head toward the sun, and gave a satisfied little squint as if to say, “Oh mama that feels good.” The sun was welcome indeed.

Because flickers spend so much time foraging for food on the ground, they are quite vulnerable to the effects of lawn products that are spread on the grass. As a wildlife rehabilitator, I was presented with poisoned flickers all too often and it was very sad to see too many of them succumb to the effects of the chemicals. Once in a while, however, a flicker could be coaxed back to good health and there was always a thrill to be felt when releasing my grip around the thrumming body of energy that is a flicker and seeing it fly back into the “wild.”

Spring is finally here, so keep your eyes peeled for your first flicker of the year. I will keep my eyes open for more interesting birds as well as some good deals on field guides. It may be time to update a book or two in my collection, but I will always keep the older copies for their historical value.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.