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FEATHER TALK
NORTHERN FLICKER

I’m enjoying birds and friends on a Wednesday morning bird walk at the Ogden Nature Center when a child’s voice breaks the silence with “Look, I found a flicker feather!” Yes indeed, it is a red-shafted feather from a Northern Flicker.

The characteristic red shaft and overall orange hue give this feather an attractive look. This is the type of feather we stick in our hat band instead of dropping it back on the ground. The young girl, from one of our favorite home-schooled
families, runs ahead to show her prize to Jack Rensel and receives in return a lesson in biology, feather molt, feather function, and other important components of a balanced education. I look up just in time to see the undulating flight of a flicker flying overhead.

Which flicker lost this feather? I recall that the Yellow-shafted Flicker of the east and the Red-shafted Flicker of the west have now been lumped into a species now known as the Northern Flicker. Without realizing what is happening, this quick glance at a flicker feather has ignited my curiosity about bird names and the ornithologists who change these names.

This is a “good news, bad news” story. First, the good news. The American Ornithologist Union (AOU) is the official keeper of the common names of birds. Birders typically learn these easy-to-say common names and do not worry about those hard-to-say and hard-to-remember scientific names. At least for me, remembering and recalling “Northern Flicker” is easier than remembering Colaptes auratus. In the plant world, no organization has standardized common names, so to communicate plant identification we must be burdened with technical sounding scientific names.

Now the bad news. Scientists continue to gain information about the avian family tree (taxonomy) and often change names to better conform to new knowledge. Birders often refer to the AOU nomenclature committee as “lumpers or splitters.” As more scientific information becomes available, some bird species are lumped together resulting in fewer species. These former species are then called races, varieties or subspecies. Species are sometimes split resulting in more species. This happened recently when the Rufous-sided Towhee was split into the Eastern Towhee and the western population which is now called Spotted Towhee.

Scientifically, a species is defined as a unique population – a population that does not interbreed with other populations producing a breeding population of the hybrids. Actually many species hybridize, but the offspring are commonly sterile or so few in number that a new species is not created. A species is often created when two populations of one species are divided by a barrier preventing interbreeding for hundreds, or thousands, of years. Humans have altered natural habitats. Former contiguous habitat blocks have been fragmented creating barriers and splitting breeding networks. Plantings, often of introduced species, have created corridors to bring formerly separated populations together. Vegetation altering factors along with global climate changes, food source changes, and other human impacts have resulted in a North American bird population that is in a state of flux.

We are losing some species to extinction, but probably creating conditions that may lead to new species. The eastern populations of Rose-breasted Grosbeak are now interbreeding with the western Black-headed Grosbeak. Will future birders have a new species? For now, my imagination is getting way too complex and cumbersome. I think I’ll just enjoy the beauty of a single flicker feather and let future generations pay the price or seek the benefits of these global impacts.


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