Golden Feathers: A Detective Story

Bernd Heinrich, a biologist and one of my favorite authors, once wrote “Movement is the essence of life.” I was immediately reminded of this while out this weekend where I stumbled upon two feathers as I was hiking, flashes of gold amongst the brown leaves on the forest floor. The feathers represented a snapshot of a moment I had not captured but, being a nature detective, I was hoping they could teach me about the movement in the life of a forest-dweller.

I am not a keen birder, and barely have the capacity to identify a bird if I see the whole bird, let alone a few leftover remnants of it passing through. After some digging (a phone-an-ornithologist moment), I learned that these festive feathers belong to the Yellow Shafted Flicker, a subspecies of the Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus (subsp. auratus). Colaptes is from the Greek “to peck at” so New World woodpeckers, the members of this genus, are aptly named. Now that I had a who-done-it, it was a matter of learning why-done-it.

This type of Northern Flicker ranges from the Great Plains eastward, while it’s cousin, the Red-Shafted Flicker ranges in the West. They can be seen year round, and can be identified by their beautiful golden plumage on the wing and tail, black and brown speckled and barred plumage on the breast and back, and a red stripe on the nape of the neck. They eat mainly ants and beetles, so it is not surprising to find Norther Flickers on the ground, catching them enjoying a bite to eat as if stumbling across a friend who’s having lunch at an outdoor cafe. I imagine that this one may have gotten a scare from another hiker while snacking, prompting a quick getaway and losing some golden feathers in the process.

While they prefer to find their food on the ground, Yellow-Shafted Flickers still hammer away at tree trunks like other woodpeckers, often as a form of territorial defense or communication. If you live near woodpeckers at all you’re probably familiar with their drumbeats, especially since every woodpecker’s goal is to be the loudest one out there. I did hear pecking that day, but ultimately never saw the culprit. Could it have been my flicker?

These particular flickers can be found throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, and are fairly common, so finding one just takes some walks through woodlands and a little bit of luck. While I never got to see the previous owner of these feathers, I was reminded that movement is life’s essence after all, and the evidence of a flicker escaping my view was part of it. Hopefully one day I’ll catch one in the act, but today spotting the calling card was enough detective work for me.



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