City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

October 6, 2016

October 5th

Filed under: Birds, Blacked-Headed Chickadee, Guardhouse gate, Northern flicker, Places — canopus56 @ 12:39 pm

Fleeting Flickers

On September 27th, I noted how difficult it is for amateurs to identify insects because of their many varieties and stages of development, and the same is true for birds. But for birds, the reason is different: bird are impossible to see for most of year. They mostly live hidden in the foliage of trees, and only their calls can be heard. About ten days ago, the Northern Flickers returned to the canyon, and a few will over-winter here. I had forgotten their calls other the summer – a plaintive “squeechu” and a rapid-fire, repeating “kih-kih”. For a frustrating week, I caught brief glimpses of the responsible fowl, but there was never enough of sighting to make an identification. On another occasion while running along the Pipeline Trail, three, separated by about an eighth of a mile, could be heard making calls and responses.

On October 2nd while the weather was cold and wet, three flickers were huddling at the top of a 70 foot tree near Guardhouse Gate. A fourth was hidden in a tree and was calling to the others. Using a monocular, the good identification was finally made. The Northern Flicker is one of my favorites: it has a mottled, checkerboard belly capped by a black breastplate. These were the red-shafted form of the Northern Flicker whose under-wings flash red-brown in flight.

This experience reminds me why birds sing. Whether the Northern Flicker or the smaller Black-Hooded Chickadee, neither can see each other when in a leafed woodland. They must sing in order to locate each other. There is no other simple way for them to disperse for grazing, but still keep tabs on each other.

Former evolutionary biologist, co-founder of the idea of punctuated equilibrium, and popular author Stephen J. Gould (deceased 2002) would call this a “just so story”. It is a convenient narrative that fits the facts, but the truth is that there were no human alive an eon ago when forest-dwelling, feathered dinosaurs first decided to sing instead of hiss. We will and can never no the truth of the matter. One of the themes of Gould’s popular writings Gould was that just-so-stories often lead paleontologists and biologists astray and to incorrect conclusions.

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