Från den lilla stugan: The Flicker’s secret

by Chrissy Larson

I pick up the phone and hear my friend on the other end. “So is it true that Flickers can lick their eyeballs?” I hesitate. “Ummm, not… no… not exactly!”

Her daughter was in one of my spring nature preschool classes, and the prior day our nature topic had been the Northern Flicker, and our class of twelve or so had learned all about the characteristics of this peculiar woodpecker. We painted and fringed orange paper feathers to match the ones seen on the tail of the bird. We used sticks to mimic their insistent drumming on trees and telephone poles and metal signs. And, to learn more about their incredible adaptations, we built models of their skulls using marshmallows, clothespins, toothpicks and a pipe cleaner. No, a Flicker does not lick its own eyeballs. But my student wasn’t completely in left field. Let me explain…

The Northern Flicker commonly feeds on the ground. (I often scare them up as I walk the dog in the morning, which is a great way to see them hightail it from the grass to a nearby branch, catching a flash of the bright white rump that’s only seen in flight.) The food of choice? Ants and beetle larvae. They poke around in the grass and leaves, hunting for marching insects. Their tongues are barbed and sticky, making it easy to actually stab their dinner. When they’ve exhausted the ants and larvae on the ground, they begin investigating nearby trees and logs, tapping on the bark to listen for chewing insects who respond. If they pick up the munching sounds, they chisel away until they find the protein they are looking for. Sometimes they test out the trees by pecking a few times and listening to how hollow the wood sounds. If the wood is hollow, there’s likely to be decaying material – and the creatures likely to be doing a lot of the decomposition are ants and beetle larvae.

They are smart birds.

In the spring, the Flickers also start to look for a mate. To show their strength and poise, they drum. The familiar d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d can be heard for blocks in my neighborhood – sounds of the male flickers trying to outdo each other with louder, longer and more creative drums, making themselves more desirable as a mate. Sometimes they drum for numerous seconds each time, sometimes they drum on street signs and metal boxes. It leaves any curious person wondering, “How can they bang their head so much and not get hurt?”

Well, as it turns out, scientists have studied woodpeckers quite a bit, because actually, it is amazing that their brains and skulls can withstand such force. We walk around every day on Earth in gravity equaling “1G.” We don’t notice that we’re under a force because our bones and muscles are used to it. When we ride a rollercoaster we might experience 4 or 5 Gs. Fighter pilots can experience 10 Gs as they scream up into the sky. Humans, in general, will get a concussion if the force is anywhere from 80-100 Gs. The Northern Flicker, however, drums at a force of 1,200 G’s.

The secret? There are four of them. First, the beak is hard, but also elastic, allowing it to give a little. Second, some of the bone in the skull is spongy, offering a little more give. Third, there is a special relationship between the cerebrospinal fluid and the skull to allow for more absorption of vibration. And lastly, that tongue that helps the Flicker stab its food is connected at its base to a much longer connective tissue called the hyoid. The hyoid allows the bird to extend its barbed tongue when looking for ants and beetle larvae. When it is drumming, however, the hyoid extends backwards inside the skull, wrapping itself around the back of the brain, up over the top of the head and around the inside of the eyeball to cradle the brain from impact. Each time a woodpecker pecks and then stops pecking at a G-force of 1,200, it is equivalent to crashing into a brick wall while going 26,000 miles per hour! And miraculously, the Northern Flicker seems to drum non-stop throughout the month of March in Portland without a care in the world, except of course, to find a mate and further the species. And just like that, the bird gets spooked and dashes off – flapping wings filled with hollow bones that lighten the load to allow for flight. The Northern Flicker is a dramatic example of nature’s ability to adapt.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers the crowd to whom he is speaking a whole list of moral, ethical and spiritual guidance, and then near the end of it, he says something like this: “Don’t worry about your life… look to the birds for a clue–they don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, and yet, they are taken care of… Who, by worrying, has ever added one hour to her life? Don’t chase after things that are meaningless in the big scheme of things – God knows what you need. Trust. Chase a life of meaning. Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow–today has enough trouble of its own.”

I am a worrier. Most situations leave me anxious and fearful. I not only worry about tomorrow and all of the things that hardly ever come true, but I also worry about the regrets of yesterday and the stress of today. I get it from all three directions. Some days, it makes me crazy and paranoid, and I have to start down my laundry list of mental tools to bring me back to a balanced state. Trust is something that does not come easy for me, and I long to possess a simpler, more vulnerable version of it.

But the Northern Flicker is something I do understand. I see them in my backyard, my front yard, down the block. I hear them in the trees, calling their familiar gack-gack-gack-GACK-GACK-GACK-GACK-GACK!! I watch them bang their heads endlessly on the metal electrical boxes at the top of the telephone pole across the street, and I think, “Man, what a miracle. What a mystery. I am living on this huge earth, full of people and buildings and oceans and trees, and the part of that speaks to me is how this bird’s tongue is helping to cradle its head while it crashes into a metal box at 26,000 miles per hour. That is trust. That is what it means to be cared for.”

And I think about my own thoughts, running into walls in all directions at 26,000 miles per hour. My emotions concuss. My anxiety chases after everything meaningless. And then I stop, and I think about the people in my life who help cradle my soul, wrapped around me, tightening down, preserving my most delicate parts. I think of the places on Earth that make me the happiest–the ones that are loud with calling birds and rich with the scent of blooming Daphne, the ones where yellow violets pepper the forest floor and the trees stare down from the sky, waving at me with all their droopiness. And I think about the reality of God, and trust, and letting go. I am cradled tight in love, hope and joy. I am safe. I am cared for. And the drumming goes on…

For more exciting Flicker facts:

sciencebasedlife.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/exploring-the-g-force-why-woodpeckers-dont-get-concussions/

wdfw.wa.gov/living/woodpeckers.html

…and my favorite bird website: www.allaboutbirds.org/

Chrissy Larson is an Early Childhood Environmental Educator for Portland Parks and Recreation in Portland, Ore. Chrissy writes from her little urban stuga (cabin) in Portland.

See all articles by Chrissy Larson