Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. March 26, 1899. [Habits of the Yellowhammer.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 34(177): 23.

Forest, Field and Stream.

I have already told you something about the bird all sportsmen love and admire, and yet could chat for hours about it. I mean the yellowhammer, as it is known in this section of the country. But like the ruddy duck the yellowhammer glories in many names. In New England he is called "higholder," in most of the southern states "golden winged woodpecker," in the middle states "flicker," on the coast "pigeon woodpecker," and in Canada "yucca." And these are not all the appellations by which he is known, as in many other localities he is called still different names. But as I said before here he is generally recognized as the yellowhammer, yet many stick to the title by which they know him on Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, the flicker. Scientifically he is called colaptes auratus, on account of his spring note. "The cackle of the flicker among the oaks" was music to the soul of Thoreau. And like Thoreau all true sportsmen have an affection for this queer but beautiful bird. It is the yellowhammer, like the robin, that lifts times' veil and brings back beautiful visions of the dreamland of long, long ago; that is to the lover of nature who is on the down grade of life. I was on these birds that the most of this sort first tried their prowess with the old musket or single-barrel in the woods adjoining the village in their barefoot days.

When you hear the cheery cackle of the flicker, and it has been due these ten days, you may count with unerring certainty on the dawning of spring. He is our migrant woodpecker and times his departure and arrival with a precision that never fails. From his appearance in March he is a familiar adjunct to our rural and frequently urban scenery until late in November. His absence would seem like a blot on one of nature's royal works. As he darts away, with that undulating pitch of his, from snag or fence post, he borrows all the gold from the sunbeams that shine through his yellow pinions. And as he flashes his wings in straightway 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 the knarled wall, or poses, rightside or wrongside up on fence stake or telephone pole, displaying his black dotted vest or mottled saddle, you recognize the fitness of each name bestowed upon him by scientific student or quaint country folk.

It is a wonder his happy cackle wherewith he announces the end of his spring time journey from the land of softer climes has not become symbolical of the vernal climacteric and gained for him a universal name. And his courtship note, a soft refined cluck, so hard to imitate, is one of the sweet sounds that vibrates the mellow air and is rated even with the carillon of the tanager or the vesper song of the spirit-thrush. You have all heard him when down in the greening bogs looking for snipe in the soothing days of early April. This note cannot be called a song, and it is joyously welcomed, perhaps, because it is one of the especial sounds of the entrancing springtide, 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 they launch themselves upon the world during the first part of the succeeding month, they instinctively become the inveterate enemy of the borer, that insidious destroyer of our apple and other fruit trees, and yet nearly half the food of the flicker is ants. Three thousand were found in one stomach. As ants spread plant lice, destroy timber and infest houses, the flicker will certainly be recognized as a most useful bird. It does good work in other ways also, and Professor Beal, who spoke such good words of the work it did in this state at the time of the grasshopper devastation, adds now that the flicker hasn't one questionable trait, and should be protected and encouraged in every possible way. Like many other innocent birds the yellowhammer has been accused of corn-eating, but at a scientific investigation 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 flicker. Trees are all well enough in their way, and the bigger the better, but for a lack of them a fence rail or old broken snag will do, and when these give way to hedges, the bird takes to the ground and is as happy and graceful 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 through 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 copiously with wild smilax-green briar-and blackberry canes. In sultry August, when the shrill drone of the cicada trembles on the hot air, the yellowhammer, with all his grown-up family, take to the ground, and on your way through 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 tint, of elm, maple, plum or cottonwood. With all the horde of summer residents they vanish in the early 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 till 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 first joyous cackle 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 breaks upon your hearing and you hail the fulfillment of the promise and the blithe and happy newcomer, a golden link in the lengthening chain that is encircling the world, will streak with gold and azure of the background sky and the universal green of the surroundings for many a bright day to come.