Sandy Griswold. December 22, 1907. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 43(12): 2-M.
When the Flicker's Call Greets the Hunter's Ear
It Is Time to Get Ready to Look for the Pintails Along the Platte.
The Bird That Brings Back Happy Visions of the Long Ago.
Noticing a pair of yellowhammers chasing each other with all the abandon of spring in and out among the gray branches of the maples up along Park avenue during last Tuesday morning's snow flurry, reminds me that the jacksnipe are not the only birds that linger with us long after the time when, the general believed is, that they should be following the new-made furrows or haunting the old snags in the further south. But it is quite probable these birds, both the jacks and the yellowhammers, know their own business about as well as most people know theirs. When they get ready to go south I guess they will go, and that is all there is to it. Up to date we haven't had any weather severe enough to seriously trouble even the more delicate of our feathered friends. I have never yet met a man who found a frozen jacksnipe or a frozen yellowhammer, or one that had died from starvation, either. But the seeing of this pair of flickers last Tuesday also reminds me that I have not seen one single robin or heard even the squawk of a bluejay at any time during the past three or four weeks of delightful weather we have had. This is truly strange. Both are hardy birds and generally are the last to leave this latitude; in fact, many of them remain with us all winter every year. Both the robin and the bluejay are much more capable of withstanding cold and inclement weather than either the jacksnipe or the yellowhammer, and I haven't any doubt whatever that many of both of these species are yet to be flushed in the deep hollows and thick woods up along the river road, if one had the mind to go up there and demonstrate the fact. Robins, I have always found here in immense flocks, wild and wary as deer, however, but, nevertheless, I have found them here for many years past, all through the present month. And the bluejay, well, he is really fond of bleak and frigid weather, and I have seen his gaudy coat flashing athwart the gray landscape and heard his defiant squawk in the trenchant air in every month of the year. Like the cedar bird, which we rarely see here now any more in any season, and which is really a first cousin of the jays, the latter has always been considered one of the concomitants of bleakness and cold, and yet there is no bird that enjoys the soft breezes, the shady foliage and mellow sunshine of the sweet summertime, better that [three words not legible] the bluejay is about as vital a little bundle of contrarieties as you will encounter in the whole feather category.
The yellowhammer, while quite pert, and saucy likewise, does not pretend to stem the fierce blasts the jay squawks querulous at, but he is a bird of far wider distribution and is equally beloved by sportsmen and naturalists. Up in the big pine woods of Northern Minnesota, where you seldom see any of the birds but some of the tiniest warblers, or a solitary raven now and then, you will always meet a yellowhammer or two on your early morning tramp to the bass waters, darting erratically, as you approach, from the covert of the Norways, or catch sight of his undulating shape as he crosses the thoroughfare or the arm of some lake. I have not only found the yellowhammer in the north woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but in the Adirondacks, too, and along the dark Aroostook in Maine. I have seen him on the sterile stretches of sage and greasewood plains in Southern Nevada, on the Great Salt Lake, in the Sui Sun marshes, in California, along the Pacific coast, in Mexico, below La Jolla, and in the heart of the San Madre mountains, everywhere in Texas, along the gulf and as far south in Florida as old Fort Foster, in the big cypress swamp. In fact, I have yet to visit nook or cranny in the United States where I have not met my beloved old pal of the woods and fields—the yellowhammer.
Like the ruddy duck the yellowhammer glories in a multiplicity of titles, but "yellowhammer" is his common appellation out here in Nebraska. In New England, he is the "highholder," in most of the Southern States the "golden-winged woodpecker," in the middle states the "flicker," in Southern California "pigeon woodpecker," and in Canada "yucca." And these are not all of the appellations by which he is known, as in many other localities he is called by still different names. But as I said before, out here, he is almost universally recognized as the yellowhammer, although many still adhere to the title by which they knew him back in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, the flicker.
In science he is called colaptes auratus, and this he gets from his spring mating cry.
The cackle of the flicker among the "oaks" was music to the soul of Thoreau, and is music today to the soul of every pure minded sportsman who takes to the fields and marshes in the early days of March after the wild fowl. All outers, whether they be shooters, anglers or simple naturalists, have an especial effection for this beautiful bird, and while classified as a game bird in most states of the union, it is rare, indeed, that he is nowadays killed for the table.
It is the yellowhammer, like the robin and the blue bird, that lifts time's veil and brings back beloved visions of the long, long ago, especially to such old woods haunters as myself, to whom in youth they were our primary game, it was on these birds that the most of the old day sportsmen first tried their prowess with the old smooth-bored musket of single barrel in the hickorys bordering the village of bare foot days.
When you hear the cherry cackle of the flicker, and you are sure to, on the first sunny days in March when the forked rudder of the pintail is defined against the sky, and you make your way out to the Platte—sure to catch those peculiar broken notes, as they emanate like strands of pearls, from distant groves of cottonwood or box-elder.
Yes, the yellowhammer is a migrant, and despite the fact that I saw a pair here less than one week ago, they generally time their departure and arrival with a precision that seldom fails. From the time of his appearance in march he is a familiar adjunct to our rural and frequently urbane scenery until late in November. His absence would seem like a blot on one of nature's most royal works. As he darts away, with that undulating pitch of his, from rotten snag or fence post, he borrows all the gold from the sunshine that glints his yellow pinions. As he flashes his wings in straightaway flight before your advancing footsteps, or sounds his sharp, single note of alarm, or peers down upon you from the portal of his lofty tower of oak or cottonwood, or clings to its gnarled wall, or poses rightside or wrongside up on fence stake or telegraph pole, displaying his black dotted vest or mottled saddle, you recognize the fitness of each name bestowed upon him by scientific scholar or quaint and quiet country folk.
It is a wonder his happy cackle where-with he announces the end of his vernal time journey from the land of honey-suckle and pomegranate, has not become symbolical of spring's climateric and gained for him one universal name.
His courtship note, a soft, sweet, refined clucking, almost impossible to imitate in words, is one of the sounds of melody that vibrates the spring's caressing air, and is rated even with the carillon of the scarlet tanager or the vesper hymn of the spirit thrush. You have all heard him when down in the greening lowlands looking for jacks in the soothing days of early April, and can make no mistake. This note cannot be called a song, but it is so joyously welcomed, perhaps, because it is one of the most inevitable sounds of the entrancing spring-tide, and is seldom if ever heard after the time of glad return and love-making. The yellowhammer's brood is well grown by the last of June, and as soon as the little ones launch themselves upon the world during the first part of the succeeding month, they instinctively become the implaceable enemy of the borer, that most insidious destroyer of the apple and other fruit trees, and yet nearly one-half of the food of the flicker is ants. Over 3,000 were found in one stomach. As ants spread plant lice, infest homes and destroy timber, the flicker will certainly be recognized as a most useful bird.
It does grand work otherwise, also, and was a host within itself in the old grasshopper days of Nebraska. The bird has absolutely not one disfavoring trait, and should be religiously protected and encouraged in every possible way. Like many other innocent birds the yellowhammer has been accused of corn-eating, but a scientific investigation showed that only five out of 200 stomachs contained any of this grain.
No change in the aspect of the country seems to worry the ever busy yellowhammer. Trees are all well enough in their way, and the bigger the better, but for a lack of them a fence rail or an old broken snag will do, and when these give way to hedges, the bird takes to the ground and is as happy as any meadow lark you ever saw. There must be a marked change, indeed, in a neighborhood before the yellowhammer will fight shy of it for good. They come boldly into the city and flit among our shade trees, and have been known to nest in the side wall of a frame house occupied by a large family of children, and of all the woodpecker family it seems best adapted to holding its own against every change that man is likely to bring about. It used to be thought that the bird nested but six or eight feet from the ground, but in these latter years we know this to be erroneous, and it is no infrequent occurrence to find their nests at an altitude of thirty and thirty-five feet. They have a fondness for the trunks of apple trees growing in out-of-the-way places, and surrounded with wild smilax—green briar—and blackberry canes. In sultry August, when the shrill drone of the cicadae trambles in the hot air, the yellowhammer, with all his grown-up family, takes to the ground, and on your way to pasture or meadow you will flush many of them. They will fly up from their search of black crickets before you as you advance, and go flashing and flickering away like dusky golden rockets shot aslant the landscape and into the green, but dusty tent, of elm, maple, oak or cottonwood. With all the hoards of summer residents they usually wholly vanish in the late dreariness of November. The season of leaf, fruit and flower is over then, and so are the days of our gaudy pets and their sweet songs.
The desolate and leafless months go by until at last comes the promise of spring, and the old sportsman becomes aware, whenever he steps out of doors, of a half unconscious listening for the joyous cackling of the flicker, just as he inclines his head in July to catch the liquid tinkle of the upland plover falling from the evening sky. Later, the long, loud, happy iteration, that sweet ululation breaks upon his hearing and he hails with thanksgiving the fulfillment of the promise of the yellowhammer's note. With the coming of this blithe and heart free visitor, is formed a topaz link in the lengthening chain that encircles the earth, and he streaks with gold the azure of the background sky, and the universal green tinging the whole landscape, for many a bright day to come.