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Open Mic: More than Just a Name

At the Mic: Donald Jones

Thanks, Rick and Derek, for interesting and thought provoking pieces on bird names, bird codes, and the birders’ psyche. Although I enjoyed Rick’s take and I think he makes many good points, I have to say, I respectfully disagree with his overall premise: “It’s not about the birds, it’s about the linguistic labels we pin on the birds.” What!?

When I see a Northern Flicker, I’m all about the bird- the exquisite plumage, the way it’s eating ants on the ground instead of feeding on beetle larvae in a tree like a proper woodpecker, the fact that it’s in Wyoming yet has yellow-shafted flight feathers. There’s so much there to ponder… for example, what can this individual’s behavior tell us about its like history? About its future? Perhaps there’s a connection between the Northern Flicker’s broad diet and adaptable nature and its abundance, as compared to a habitat specialist like the rare and declining Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Next it’s on to the subspecies; common knowledge tells us that Yellow-shafted Flickers shouldn’t be in Wyoming, and for most of the 20th century they weren’t (ostensibly). In the last few decades, though, they’ve been reported with increasing frequency. Are they really more common in the state, indicating a westward range expansion, or is increasingly thorough observer coverage behind this trend? It may not be possible to answer all of these questions, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve just spent 15 minutes developing a much deeper appreciation of an everyday bird.

Photo by Brendan Lally, appropriately via flickr.

Photo by Brendan Lally, appropriately via flickr.

I couldn’t care less whether you want to call it a Northern Flicker, a Yellow-shafted Flicker, a NOFL, a YSFL, or a Spot-breasted White-rumped Not Woodpecker. Personally, it would go into my field notebook as a YSFL for brevity’s sake but I would call it a Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) when I reported it to the local listserv out of consideration for those who might not know its banding code. But I believe that by reducing our birds to an arbitrary combination of letters in one of hundreds of languages worldwide, we lose respect for, and understanding of, the very creatures we love to observe. After all, while not every birder you meet in the field will call a Yellow-shafted Flicker a Yellow-shafted Flicker, anyone who’s seen one, and spent the time to get to know it, will tell you what a cool bird it is. And hopefully, they’ll also appreciate the need to protect this feathered jewel, and all its winged brethren, for future birders to appreciate. For me, that’s what birding is all about.

What, you may ask, is the purpose of this long-winded rant? Well, I propose that as we prepare to usher in a new year of birding adventures, we consider making a collective resolution: to slow down and really take the time to watch the birds we see, be they as mundane as a Northern Flicker in Wyoming or as extraordinary as a Red-legged Honeycreeper in South Texas. In the case of the former, spending an extra few minutes to appreciate the finer details can really liven up an otherwise slow winter birding trip. As for the latter, it’s likely that minutiae of feather molt and wear, captured in photos, will decide whether this individual is “countable” and represents an ABA Area first. Either way, all birders, from the casual hobbyist to the hardcore lister, would do well to go beyond simply tagging the individual with a name and moving on. Birds are so much more than an amalgamation of letters; neither NOFL nor Northern Flicker come close to doing the real thing justice. In 2015, I resolve to slow down, look deeper than the name, and enjoy birds and birding more than ever.

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Donald Jones was born and raised in Laramie, Wyoming, where his interest in birds was fostered through countless hours out among the vast mountains and plains. Currently in his second year at Middlebury College in Vermont, he studies biology and enjoys birding and exploring where the mountains are old. In addition to his long-standing fascination with flickers, he love the newfound spectacle of a dozen species of eastern warblers mobbing an abandoned Green Mountain orchard on a warm May morning.