American Birding Podcast



Small Town Unites to Aid Baby Flicker

In the United States, we celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July. Canada’s closest analog, Canada Day, is just a few days before, on July 1. It’s a time to come together and remember not only the individualism that energizes us, but the way a shared sense of purpose can enable us to work together toward common goals. In that spirit, I bring you the story of an event that happened right here in Delaware City, Delaware, just a couple days ago—on July 1, in fact. Whatever country or countries you hail from or reside in, I hope it brings a little lift to your weekend.

It all began Wednesday afternoon. Some neighborhood kids brought a nestling Northern Flicker to Liz at the ABA office. Apparently it had fallen from its nest. Liz patiently encouraged them to put the bird back exactly where they found it and to give the parent flickers a chance to care for it. Later in the day, we checked the general area but saw no sign of the bird or the kids. We hoped that that was end of the matter.

It wasn’t. In the early evening our neighbor Doris called and said that she and her husband, Jeff, had found the bird foundering in the street. Liz and I headed back over.


Sure enough, there was the hapless young flicker, looking fairly grown up in its midsection but notably short in the bill and tail. We carefully gave it a little water and placed it on the trunk of a tall maple in front of Doris and Jeff’s house. It clung and called strongly, but seemed unable to climb the tree.


This inability or unwillingness to climb was a problem for a couple of reasons. As we watched the juvenile for half an hour or so, we learned a couple of things. On the good side, that maple was in fact the flicker’s nest tree. We saw the adult flickers make several trips into its crown and heard the raspy begging calls of more robust siblings. But the parents weren’t coming down to feed the youngster out of the nest. Perhaps they had given up on it, or maybe they just weren’t willing to come down so low on a fairly heavily-trafficked street.


Even worse, the baby was attracting the attention of cats, especially this tom. By his “tipped” ear, we could tell he was part of the town’s trap-neuter-release program, but that certainly didn’t stop him from climbing the tree after the flicker. (I was off in search of a ladder at that point, so no photos of that).


As we pondered what to do, a crowd began to gather, as one so often does when anything of even passing note is happening. Liz and I did what we could to explain the bird and its predicament to all that came by.


The more we looked at things, the clearer it was that we really needed help. We were able to borrow an extension ladder, but even its substantial height would only get us a fraction of the way up toward the nest. That’s when we appealed to a higher authority: the Delaware City Fire Company, whose station is just a couple of blocks away. Liz beseeched them to come help and they agreed. We all waited nervously, not fully believing they would show for such a trivial matter in the grand scheme of things. But to the assembled crowd, it wasn’t seeming so trivial. Sure, we knew in our heads that the survival of a single baby bird was a small thing. But it didn’t feel that way in our hearts, perhaps especially to the kids.


When that fire truck came into view, you could feel the mood of the crowd soar. One doesn’t often get to see heroes riding to the rescue these days. We did.


Ladder Captain Dave Hall and the crowd look at his charge as the ladder truck makes a U-turn.


Once the truck was parked, we did what we could to explain the location of the nest. And the ladder went up and up and up and up.


You know, they say that every job has its proper tool. And it’s clear that if you want to put a little bird back into the top of a tall tree, a ladder truck is a most excellent tool. That and a well trained crew that can operate it.


It was charming to see that this brave man, who regularly does things that would leave most of us completely paralyzed with fear, had a certain amount of apprehension in handling a baby woodpecker. But if you’ve handled woodpeckers, you’ll know he was justified. Those claws and bills are both strong and sharp! Yay for gloves.


Going up the ladder, flicker in hand.


I have to confess that not all went 100% smoothly. Whenever one tries to help out, there are risks of unintended consequences, and we certainly had one. As Ladder Captain Hall put the first baby back in the nest, one of its siblings jumped out went fluttering to the ground in a neighbor’s yard. This set off a mad scramble where I and a couple of others wound up running a block or so and perhaps doing a little light trespassing in order to corral baby #2. After a couple of frantic, hours-long minutes, we had that second baby back up the ladder and up to the nest. In the photo above, taken after the truck left, you can see 3 babies.


As that second baby went back into the tree, a cheer went up. Hugs were exchanged and thanks were given. Our firefighter heroes rode off—literally—into the sunset.


We don’t yet know the outcome of this story. That little flicker may in fact not survive to adulthood. Even if it does, it will continue to face a host of threats to its survival, many of them human-caused.

But one thing is certain: for a few hours one lingering summer evening, a goodly part of a small town came together to try to help that bird. And that, one hopes, may truly make a difference.

Happy holidays, everyone. Enjoy your summer.

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I’d like to extend a huge thanks to the Delaware City Fire Company for their willingness to help. I’d also like to thank Lisa Smith, Executive Director of the the estimable Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, for her help and counsel. Tri-State has a very helpful page on what to do if you find an injured or baby bird here.