PRATT, KS-- Like ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos, poison ivy is one of those species that remind us that nature is not paradise. Sensitivity to poison ivy runs from none at all to people who break out in a rash just by getting near. In fact, many people are highly allergic to poison ivy and always keep a watchful eye for it at any season.
Animals, however, regard poison ivy quite differently. The northern flicker -- a white rumped woodpecker with yellow feathers under its wings and tail -- will even eat the clusters of waxy white berries of this dreaded plant. They actually gobble them down with zeal. More than two dozen bird species make use of poison ivy berries to supplement their fall and winter diets, but none seem to relish the berries as much as the flicker.
Of course, birds have no reaction to the active chemical in poison ivy. They are after the fleshy part of the berry that covers a hard seed. The seed passes through the birds^s digestive system unharmed and is deposited away from the parent plant with a wash of high-nitrogen starter fertilizer to boot. This is one of nature^s trades -- animal nutrition for plant dispersal. The poison ivy provides the flicker with nourishment while the flicker provides the poison ivy with a free ride.
On the whole, the flicker^s favorite menu is a bit peculiar. In fall and winter, poison ivy berries make up a significant portion of the diet, from 10 to 20 percent. During the warmer months, the flicker^s favorite food is ants. Nearly half of its entire diet is ants. One researcher documented more than 5,000 ants in one flicker^s stomach. Evidently, the formic acid that causes the sharp sting when we get bitten by ants does not bother the flicker any more than poison ivy.
For most humans, however, poison ivy is off limits. Anyone who isn^t sure if they are allergic should assume that they are. Otherwise, they could end up needing, as the song goes, "an ocean of calamine lotion."