What is the State Bird of Alabama? (And Why?)

Alabama is a diverse state that boasts diverse geography, predominately dominated by mountain regions. It is the 30th largest state by area and the 24th most populous. The state animal for Alabama is the Black Bear, but what is the state bird?

The state of Alabama chose the northern flicker, also called the yellowhammer (Colaptes auratus), as the state bird in 1927. The bird also gets referred to as the yellow-shafted flicker, to describe the appearance of this Alabama woodpecker.

The state bird of Alabama, the Northern Flicker.

The state bird of Alabama, the Northern Flicker.

Why is the northern flicker the state bird for Alabama?

The yellowhammer state, as Alabama became known, received its nickname from the prevalence of its state bird. The migratory bird chose the state as one of its homes away from home. The legislation naming it the official state bird did not impart any clue as to why. Section 1-2-7 of Chapter 2 of Title 1 of the Code of Alabama, 1975, simply reads “The bird commonly called the yellow-hammer is hereby designated the state bird.”

When did the northern flicker become the state bird for Alabama?

In 1927, the state of Alabama officially named the northern flicker as its state bird. Later legislation in 1980 named a state game bird – the eastern wild turkey.

Northern Flicker on the ground during winter

Northern Flicker on the ground during winter

What does the state bird of Alabama look like?

You’ll know a male yellowhammer when you see him since they have a mustache. This medium-sized bird features plumage of grayish brown accented with black. The woodpecker has yellow underwings. The female of this bird keeps a clean shaven countenance.

Measuring from head to tail, the northern flicker grows to between 4.7 to 5.5 inches and its wingspan measures about 17 to 21 inches. These birds reach a height of 11 to 14 inches and weigh a little more than most songbirds - from 3 to 6 ounces.

A male Northern Flicker

A male Northern Flicker

How do these birds behave?

The northern flicker ranges throughout the US. Two sub-species exist, the red-shafted that frequents the western portion of the US and the yellow-shafted flickers that frequent the east part of the country. While it is rare, these two sub-species have been known to interbreed.

Yellowhammers keep active during the day, perching atop bushes to perform songs, such as “a little bit of bread and no cheese” song. These birds feed on the ground in flocks when not in the breeding season. A flock might contain hundreds of birds, including finches and buntings and finches.

These birds speak to communicate with one another. Yellowhammers learn these bird calls from their fathers and in a regional dialect. Yellowhammers outside of Alabama speak a different dialect than those in AL. These bird calls may include song variants and individual calls, but some universal words exist, including “zit” for contacting another bird, “see” to sound an alarm, and a trilled “tirrr” when in flight. The fluency of language helps the male land favorable mates. The silver-tongued speakers mate with females who share their dialect, with the females choosing the males with the most diverse singing and speaking repertoires.

These partially migrant woodpeckers nest in trees in open areas. They choose trees of soft wood in dying or dead trees. Their weak beaks can peck out a nest in the soft wood. If a yellowhammer finds a burrow or hole made by another bird deserted, it may reside in it. They will also peck a nest into a fence post, earthen bank, or a nest box kept in a friendly person’s yard. The northern flicker resides in Alabama year-round, but the bird’s population has declined due to pesticide use and diminishing eastern forests.

Female Northern Flicker

Female Northern Flicker

Do northern flickers form communities?

The monogamous yellowhammer couples, establishing a formal breeding territory and defending it. The male establishes a territory along a hedge or edge of a forest. While courtship begins in April or May, with the male serenading his future bride from a bush or tree, it can continue into July or August.

The yellowhammer also uses physical displays of manliness to woo the female. He raises his wings while running towards her. Once he wins her heart, the female begins building their nest. While they live in trees, these birds build a literal love nest on the ground or close to it. This love nest, they hide in a bush or in tussocks. It may also be against a bank. The female uses plant materials, including stalks, dry grass, and leaves, then blends in some animal hair. She uses fine grasses to line the inside of the nest.

The yellowhammers then breed. She will lay a clutch of three to five eggs. These white eggs marked with dark, fine lines the mother bird incubates for 12 to 14 days. Once they hatch, the two adult birds care for their young downy chicks until they become fledglings about two weeks later. The adults feed the children in the nest. The amorous yellowhammers have two or three broods per year. At the age of one year, their chicks reach breeding age and strike out on their own to meet their spouse and begin creating baby woodpeckers.

Not all of the US birds live in Alabama. The Carolina wren migrates out as far as Oklahoma, but not to its Panhandle region. It is essentially an eastern US bird.

Northern Flicker on a suet bird feeder

Northern Flicker on a suet bird feeder

What do Northern Flickers eat?

The yellowhammer does things a little differently than other woodpeckers. It forages on the ground, dining on a mix of bugs, nuts, and berries. Its regular meals include ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, termites, snails, spiders, nuts, seeds, and berries. It particularly enjoys the poison ivy plant berry, which does it no harm. The aerial woodpecker can also catch insects mid-flight. The bird’s long, barbed tongue lets it scoop up many ants at once. It will also sit on top of an anthill, so the ants will crawl up its wings. One theory scientists developed regarding this practice is that the ants secrete an acid that controls parasites that would normally try to live on the bird.

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