15. Colaptes auratus

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September 14, 2016

Sitting on the fire escape this morning I listened and entered the quiet there, inside the city noise. With vacuum cleaner drone and child’s harmonica blast from apartments, and garden equipment rip from a condominium block, I noted that, “…it would take a fairly robust bird voice to register over the machinery.” But a flicker’s “klee-yer” did cut through. I followed it across the park and down the lane. On the ground under a pine tree a big grey bird hammered a hole in the ground with her woodpecker bill. Her necklace (a crescent of black on the chest) and her black-speckled underparts confirmed Northern flicker, Colaptes auratus. I use the pronoun “her” because I saw no scarlet moustache.

Watching a flicker has sometimes a numinous quality for me – a magic, mystical or spiritual feeling. And what a striking bold beauty! Our Pacific Northwest subspecies is the “red-shafted” Colaptes auratus cafer. Red-shafted refers to the sockeye salmon hue of wings and tail that flight reveals. Standing on the ground Northern flicker displays its prominent black necklace, tailband and speckles against its gentle greys and browns.

That special numinous quality for me developed in the 1970s. I was researching an essay about salmon streams that once chuckled where the city of Vancouver now roars. In the archives I found a memoir by Chief August Jack Khatsalano, a charismatic and deeply cultured resident of early Vancouver. His family had lived there from before the city. Chief Khatsalano remembered their homes and village sites. I visited Jericho Beach Park, looking for any trace of a feast house his grandfather built. The memoir recounts that as a boy August Jack saw two old doctors there, the last living of eight renowned medicine men, shamanic healers of his grandfather’s era.

I think I found the right spot in Jericho Beach Park, but no trace of the feast house. A mountain ash tree stood there now, in Vancouver’s dull winter, bright with red berries. Feeding on them, two big grey birds swayed under frail branches. I glimpsed a red stripe across a cheek, a broad black necklace on a grey chest, and the mandarin lining of a wide-fanned tail. Flickers. Then starlings hit the mountain ash, screeching dozens of them. The scene was red berries and swarming black bodies. Then just the black. When they swarmed off, a few berries and two grey birds remained. Those flickers, in my heart, were the two old doctors that August Jack had seen almost a century before. Flickers began to represent, for me, the Elders, the spirit of place, the accumulating wisdom of community and ecosystem to which one might turn for guidance.

So I was glad to hear a flicker across Fern Street Park this morning. I haven’t noticed them here all summer. We will hear more as autumn progresses. The literature describes our red-shafted subspecies as short-distance migrants. Summer finds Colaptes auratus cafer breeding eastward in British Columbia as far as the Rockies. When winter threatens to cover the ground there with snow, they move west and south. The food they mainly seek is ants, which are most available from bare ground. The bird under the pine tree this morning was most likely eating ants, flicking her long, barbed tongue out to collect them.

Our winters around Victoria produce little snow. Flickers may easily excavate for insects here. Fruits from bushes and trees augment the diet. In the back yard we see flickers feeding on red-osier dogwood berries and elderberries in autumn. In the front yard we see them on the holly tree in late winter after frost sweetens the berries and starts them fermenting. Flickers that breed around Victoria need not migrate south in winter, and birds from the freezing interior of the province join them here. Red-shafted flickers that nest around Riske Creek, for example, in the Chilcoten ranchlands, winter in Victoria and as far south as Sacramento.

Riske Creek flickers contribute much to our understanding of the species. Karen Wiebe, a professor from the University of Saskatchewan, has led summer fieldwork at Riske Creek for two decades. Scientific papers on Colaptes auratus have poured forth. We have recently learned from Riske Creek flickers, for example, that the black necklace on the bird I saw this morning communicates. Last year (2015) The Auk published an article, Melanin plumage ornaments in both sexes of Northern Flicker are associated with body condition and predict reproductive output independent of age.

Flickers’ prominent black markings speak to other flickers in breeding season. They inform about a bird’s maturity and physical condition. Prospective mates notice the size of those ornaments, and the blackness. A female’s necklace might be at its widest and blackest on a healthy bird in her third year. The healthiest male in at least his second year might display the widest black tailband. How black is black? A bird in the best physical condition is able to most densely pigment its ornament feathers with melanin. I might not notice the difference. A good clothes shopper or a breeding flicker would though. Sherryll has often pointed out to me the brown-ness or blue-ness of garments that I called black. In the study at Riske Creek the investigators used a spectrometer to measure the blackness of black.

It appeared that females displaying necklaces most dense with melanin pigment most attracted the opposite sex. Likewise males with the widest tailbands. When those two paired, they brought the greatest number of chicks safe through all the hazards of the nest to successfully fledge out. Thus the female I watched this morning spoke vital truth in her necklace. Wellbeing of the population depends on it.

The Riske Creek researchers also measured the mustache of males.  They concluded that in Colaptes auratus cafer the red stripe behind the bill, or lack of it, functions mainly to announce maleness or femaleness. The sexes look otherwise similar. Some basic sorting statement is required. But not all mustaches are red at Riske Creek. Many are black, a characteristic of Yellow-shafted flickers, Colaptes auratus aurates. Breeding range of the two Northern flicker subspecies overlaps there. Hybrids result. In autumn the hybrids migrate mainly west and south with the Red-shafted population. So in Victoria in winter we see varied combinations of cafer and aurates markings. The Red-shafted race shows red-orange flight feathers, mid-grey head and face, and the red mustache in males. Yellow-shafted flickers exhibit flight feathers of custardy-rich yellow; the face is cinnamon-beige, with the black mustache in males; the back of the head is grey, with a red crescent. Hybrids carry any blend of the above. Victoria birders see them all.

Hybrid flickers surprised John James Audubon in 1843. Audubon had journeyed through aurates range – he called them Golden-winged woodpeckers – up the Missouri River toward its headwaters in the Rockies.  Around the confluence with Yellowstone River he observed a group of five flickers that varied remarkably in colour. Individuals in the group had flight feathers ranging from yellow to red, including in-between salmony pink. He predicted that they would “puzzle all the naturalists in the world.” And indeed hosts of naturalists have studied hybrid flickers ever since.

Between ranges of Red- and Yellow-shafted flickers, a zone of hybridization extends thousands of kilometers. It roughly traces the Continental Divide from Alaska to New Mexico. The range of Yellow-shafted aurates extends vastly east and north to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and to arctic treeline. Red-shafted cafer flickers range west and south to the Pacific coast and Central America. Science generally suggests that the two subspecies and their east-west split stem from the most recent ice age. Prior to it, a single race of Northern flicker may have ranged in forest from Atlantic to Pacific.

The Wisconsin glaciation spread ice over the northern half of North America, starting around 75,000 years ago. South of the ice, climate pushed forest east and west toward the coasts. Between Atlantic and Pacific forest, it created cold desert, treeless, uncongenial to flickers. Eastern and western populations, physically separated, may have evolved then into Red- and Yellow-shafted races. They metabolized carotenoids differently.

Flickers get their reds and yellows from carotenoid pigments in their food. Exoskeletons of ants and other bugs provide the pigments, as do berries. Flickers in captivity can get carotenoids from carrots and peppers. DNA of the cafer race directs enzymes to oxygenate some of those pigments in the flight feathers. It makes the cafers’ feathers more red-shafted.

Around 15,000 years ago, climate warmed; ice melted; forest expanded; treeline extended north. Ranges of Red- and Yellow-shafted flickers spread north and inland. I’m guessing that 12,000 years ago on this Fern Street hillside a Red-shafted pair hollowed out a nest in a lodgepole pine, as bison grazed. I’m guessing that the colder centuries between 11,400 and 10,900 years ago repelled flickers from the Island, but that they returned soon afterward. Flicker calls have no doubt pierced Bowker Valley stillness for the past 10,000 years. Science suggests that the expanding ranges of cafer and aurates met at least 7000 years ago. The hybrid zone may have held fairly stable for the past 4000 years.

 In BC the Northern flicker is our most common woodpecker. Wherever trees stand, they gouge out nest holes. Across North America flickers total almost ten million. And they provide nests for many millions of other birds. At Riske Creek a study found that flickers generally didn’t reuse their nest holes in subsequent years. Other species more often occupied them: European starling, Mountain bluebird, Tree swallow, American kestrel, Red squirrel, Bufflehead. Wildlife managers term Northern flicker and other woodpeckers “keystone” species. Their nest-hole-making plays a vital role in forest ecosystems. Wood ducks, small owls and hawks, wrens, swifts and swallows depend on them.

Flicker nest-making depends on decaying trees. The bird does not tunnel into living solid wood, but into punky wood. Ecologically, the most valuable tree in a forest or in this neighbourhood may be a snag, crumbling and riddled with woodpecker holes. We too quickly remove dead wood. Decay, generally we under-appreciate. I hope we are evolving culturally to see beauty in rotting trees, and in trees with dead tops. In the world I want for my grandson, Northern flickers continue to be a common wonder.

They have helped me. In the early 1980s in early autumn I visited Jericho Beach Park again, where I had watched the two Red-shafted flickers feeding on mountain ash berries. My 1970s life, its marriage and career, was no more. Proceeds from selling our house had supported me for several months. They had dwindled and I had sold my MG. That morning I was feeling lost enough perhaps to open to new direction. I appealed to the Elders. Had anyone cared to observe, they would have seen a young man stand looking at a mountain ash tree for a long time, then, within a circle of cedar trees, walk slowly round and round and round. As I walked, my appeal to the Elders settled gradually within me to an exceptionally deep level of sincerity.

Leaving the park, I bought a newspaper. On the bus home I opened the help-wanted ads. I needed a job. One ad invited me to drive school busses for children with special needs. I applied and from that year bussing children with disabilities, a complete life has welcomed me. One of the other drivers was Sherryll; one of the schools let me volunteer between shifts; one of its teachers steered me toward a vocation in education with students with multiple severe disabilities. School District #61, Greater Victoria, offered me a job here.

I would honour now the Elders. The flicker under the pine tree says: “Human mind is not for making you special; it’s for serving Earth’s becoming.”