In 1927, the yellowhammer was designated the Alabama state bird. Since then it has maintained its place in state lore.
From college battle cries to news accounts to breweries – and every imaginable thing in between – the yellowhammer has evolved into a symbol of Southernness across the state.
According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Alabama has been known as the Yellowhammer State since long before adopting the flicker as its state bird: it dates back to the Civil War, to be exact.
But what most people know as the yellowhammer, birding professionals and enthusiasts know as the Northern Flicker. Seems pretty strange for an Alabama state bird, but every bird has an official name.
“Every bird in North America has a name voted on by a committee,” said Dr. Geoffrey Hill, a member of the Alabama Ornithological Society and an Auburn University professor of biology with a specialty in ornithology.
“There are two populations of flickers, one in the west with red coloring and then one in the east with yellow coloring,” Hill said. “It used to be considered its own species – the yellow-shafted flicker – but the Northern Flicker term includes both the yellow and red populations.”
As for where its name came from, Hill has an idea.
“Most of the birds that are conspicuous, people see them and give them names,” Hill said. A member of the woodpecker family – though smaller than the recognized red-headed woodpecker – the yellowhammer is a small, speckle-breasted bird with yellow tail feathers on his underside.
Its presence in the state is not nearly as much as the its name would suggest.
“The interesting thing about flickers is that they’re common in the winter but not common in the breeding season, the summer,” said Hill. “They’re not rare, but not a common bird with the exception of the winter.”
During the winter they can be found in yards and suburbs, close to the ground to consume ants – one of the few birds that can. When they depart the yard after an ant-foraging mission, bird-watchers can get a glimpse of their prized color.
“When they fly up they have a white patch on their bottom,” Hill said. “As they fly away you can see the white spot and the yellow is the underside of the wings.”
While professional and amateur birders alike definitely respect the technical names of birds, the charm of the state bird’s history is undeniable.
“We have a state bird watching group and the name of our newsletter is The Yellowhammer,” Hill said. “It’s kind of an Alabama thing, something we have.”
That group, the Alabama Ornithological Society, is 300 members strong and made up of birdwatchers from professional ornithologists to people who just enjoy watching a bird feeder. Their goal is the same: to enjoy the vibrant bird population the state offers up. Even the less common ones, like the yellowhammer.
“It’s kind of an odd bird to have as the state bird of Alabama,” Hill said.
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