One of the things human beings are very bad at — a list that includes having a thought without posting it on Facebook — is transcribing bird calls. There are just certain things a particular species isn’t equipped to do. You wouldn’t ask a blue whale to cook an omelette. Sure, they can sift flour, but they can’t crack eggs. Those great flippers don’t have the dexterity. And whales are smart enough to know that — which is why, even with massive unemployment in the whale world, none of them ever applies for a job as a short-order cook.
Here’s an example of the transcription issue. Brewer’s Blackbirds. Early May arrivals here, where they perch on stop signs and hang about at the base of the water cooler, making a series of sharp scree sounds and throaty burping noises. What they’re saying is something like, “Wiped out. Flew in from Texas this a.m. We had a migration party last night that — seriously — was still going lights out at 4. Cops were called. Got totally hammered. And now I have to build a nest.” We transcribe that as kit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tchuk-tchuk. Awful. It doesn’t get any of the nuance. The Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest have a language that comes much closer than English. One of their dialects alone is called Hul’q’umi’num’, and you can easily run out of diacritical marks ordering a pizza.
Red-shafted Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are conspicuous this time of year. With the dawn chorus not yet peaking, you’ll be able to hear them hammering on chimney caps and cedar siding, or hear them calling, as I did yesterday, from the power poles halfway down the hill. A male was having a good natter with another farther up the drive, a rhythmic squeeze toy loop, like a chipmunk trying to start his car on a cold morning. We’re told it sounds like wik-a wik-a wik-a wik-a wik-a wik-a. But then we get back to the old problem of transcription. It’s more like a breathy quicwnhk’a-quicwnhk’a-quicwnhk’a-quicwnhk’a or a rapid tsoxatsat-tsoxatsat-tsoxatsat-tsoxatsat-tsoxatsat — which, as you might expect, is actually the Nooksack word for sun.
And since his calling was all part of a territorial display, an early testing of the terrain before the fun really starts, he was suggesting to the other male that he might want to place his claim to this spot up a certain part of his anatomy where the sun is mostly absent. Again, it’s a nuance thing. To us it all sounds repetitive. To them, with pauses for response — a-quicwnhk’a-quicwnhk’a-tsoxatsat-tsoxatsat-ang (“Your mama is an intergrade snail-eater”) — it’s a sophisticated dialogue of claim and counter-claim, carried on in the language of the people, and usually ending when one of them threatens to have his solicitor send a cease and desist letter.
We live in a bit of a seam here on the Front Range, where we’re likely to get a few yellow-shafted flickers, the moody, sardonic birds of the East and the eastern plains, with the red-shafted variety — more talkative and naive. You’ll often see the western birds on the ground, practicing Vipassana meditation and steaming their tail feathers. They’re more sharply dressed, with a sweeping blood-red barber shop mustache, blue-gray faces, and a chestnut-colored crown. Yellow-shafted birds have the advantage of a slightly more traditional look, a black set of whiskers and a prominent matching bib. And bellies that appear, curiously, as though someone had drilled a mass of holes in birch bark, each roughly the diameter of the bird’s beak. A startling reverse-starling effect.
If you can get a good angle, the easiest field mark to spot are the tail feathers themselves, best seen from below. The yellow-shafted have, well, yellow shafts, with the caudate lobe of each feather-tip dipped in ink, and usually a similar yellow on the edge of their flight feathers. The western birds substitute sunset red for yellow, unmistakable in flight, their flashes of color and white rump announcing, as firmly as their staccato calling, that they’re back in town. You might want to guard the siding.
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Notes: Colaptes auratus, from the Greek kolaptēs, “pecker” or more rudely, “chiseller”; and auratus, from the Latin root for gold. So, “Golden Pecker,” which is actually my porn star name.
Listen to a sound file of the flicker’s call at allaboutbirds.org/guide/assets/sound/522495.mp3, courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.