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A Yellowhammer is a Bird
By Mitchell Marks, Wildlife Biologist, Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area
If you were born and raised in Alabama, you should know what a “yellowhammer” is. To those who have moved here from outside of this great state, if you say yellowhammer, they may mistakenly think that you are referring to a carpenter’s tool made by Stanley®, known for their yellow handles. I am quite sure that Stanley® tools are used in Alabama, but, in Alabama, a yellowhammer is the state bird!
In 1927, then Gov. Bibb Graves signed a bill making the yellowhammer, also know as the common or yellow-shafted flicker, Alabama’s State Bird. The yellow-shafted flicker is a medium sized woodpecker so named because the shafts of its primary wing feathers are yellow. The yellow-shafted flicker is actually the eastern and northern subspecies of the common flicker. There is also a western subspecies known as the red-shafted flicker and the southwestern desert subspecies known as the gilded flicker. Some hybridization takes place where these subspecies ranges overlap, but in Alabama, the yellow-shafted is the only subspecies present.
The yellow-shafted flicker has a gray-brown back with broken black bars. It has a white rump patch that can be seen easily when flying away and has a two-pointed black tail. The crown and neck are gray with a red bar on the nape. The male sports a black moustache that is not found on the female. Its belly and breast are cream colored with irregular black spots. This flicker is found throughout Alabama inhabiting cities and suburban areas as well as rural areas. Like other woodpeckers, they feed on insects under the bark of dead or dying trees. They also feed more readily on the ground than other woodpeckers where ants make up the majority of their diet. They also eat seeds, nuts and berries. They hop along on the ground, looking and listening for food. When in flight, they “lope” along, in a bouncing form of flight.
Nesting typically begins in April in Alabama, but will be seasonally later for more northern breeding latitudes. Females lay 6-to-10 white colored eggs typically in the cavity of a dead tree, but have been known to use nest boxes. They have also been known to nest in building roofs, cliffs and earthen banks. Once the young hatch, both parents take part in caring for and feeding of the young. Young are capable of flight in about three weeks. Like other animals, they are susceptible to predation from owls, hawks and snakes, but because they feed readily on the ground, they have to also be vigilant against mammal predators such as feral cats, foxes and bobcats.
During the Civil War, a cavalry unit from Huntsville joined up with Confederate forces in Kentucky. That Alabama cavalry unit wore new uniforms, trimmed in yellow. As thy rode by, the soldiers noticed the trim of the cavalry’s uniform and likened it to the yellow of the feathers from the flicker. They shouted “yellowhammer” as the troops rode by. From that point on, all Alabama troops were known as “yellowhammers.” The soldiers considered that name as a badge of honor and wore feathers in their hats and lapels even years after the war’s end when they attended reunions.