Is it because the late-August air is otherwise so quiet that the call of a flicker sounds so clear and so strong?
I remember how, during Utah Augusts, there would be above our acreage or in the mountains, only the occasional birdy chatter–siskins and robins, finches and chickadees, a hawk, a briefly rowdy riot of magpies or ravens. Ah, but that list suggests, wrongly, a cacophony. Bird sound in late summer is mostly broadcast from some kind of Ambient Enviro Channel, background nature sounds on new-age satellite radio. The volume is barely turned up, the signal’s often lost in all the drowsy air, the month’s as whispery as it is hot.
A flicker’s call spears the air the way its skull-wrapped tongue shoots out to slurp up ants from the ground. A flicker’s quick call is a high-pitched stab. Kyeer, or, as I hear it now, clear. A flowered spike of glass shooting from the hollow of your chest. In August, a flicker’s call sharpens the air, drops the temperature a second, tells languid fall to hurry along. Clear’s a tangy call that calls out diminished things.
I really knew flickers first in Kansas, unaware of where they’d take me. Flickers nested in the cavity of a hackberry tree outside my window. Their calls, their drumming beaks on the roof and a utility pole’s metal casings were an exuberance I learned from. They poked their heads out of the hole like Ovidian fables borne instantly from darkness in the bark.
They’d drum their bills on the pergola, they’d fly to dead cottonwoods, they’d call clear rising, mountains rising, clear water rushing beneath. How odd, how old. Their panache and surreal antiquity. Flickers in Utah. Like the call of an ashram gong, their notice would tell me to stop whatever it was that seemed so important because nothing mattered more than clear and the silence after. The sky got bigger then.
If I ask how it is I came to the southwest, the flicker would answer that its name is a verb.
What I knew in Kansas and Utah was the Northern Flicker, a jay-sized brownish woodpecker with a barred back. That sounds dull. Flickers are vivacious and elegant. A black sash of a chest, pale belly polka-dotted with black, males in the west daubed red on their cheeks, red or yellow on the underside of their tails and wings–red in the west, yellow in the east.
The Gilded Flicker, not respecting geography in this instance, is yellow-shafted, though its range is distinctly southwestern. Maybe Gildeds forged their yellow feathers from all that Sonoran sunshine. After all, they live exclusively among saguaros. Their calls “average higher-pitched” than Northerns’, one field guide tells me, but I can’t hear much difference. This guide also says “both species [are] essentially identical.” In fact, where the Gilded and Northern intermix, they’ll sometimes breed. They “hybridize.” Gilded or Northern, they’re flickers. What makes a bird?
When, bewildered to live here, I first stood looking at a swale of saguaros, the mountains piled up close by like all the right, mysterious reasons, I saw a Gilded Flicker perched atop a tall saguaro. I saw another one stick its long bill then its dark-eyed head from the “boot” of another saguaro–that hole flickers dig out, waiting months for sap to harden so they might have a nest. The Gilded Flickers were at home there.
DNA makes a bird. Place makes a bird. We make birds. We deem the Gilded a subspecies of the Northern then declare it a species unto itself–twice. Metaphor makes a bird: Rump white as cumulus. Chest mark black as night inside a cactus. Malar red as paintbrush.
Suddenly, above the thorny uplight and uplift of saguaros, what made a Gilded Flicker was the sad, sweet jolt of clear that pierced hot and wavy silence.
This is the flickers’ “contact call,” the way they find others of their kind miles apart. It finds me here and every place I’ve ever heard it or will. What makes a bird makes me.
Christopher Cokinos is the author of Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, both from Tarcher/Penguin. He has work recent or forthcoming in High Desert Journal, Science and the Los Angeles Times. He teaches in the University of Arizona's MFA Program.