Discover Why Alabama Is Called the “Yellowhammer State”

flag of Alabama
© Belyay/Shutterstock.com

Written by Mike Edmisten

Updated: June 30, 2023

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Alabama has multiple nicknames along with the Yellowhammer State. It is known as the Cotton State, due to its central location in the cotton belt. Cotton was a major economic driver for the state in the past. Alabama is still the sixth-highest cotton-producing state in the United States.

It is also known as the Heart of Dixie because Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederate States during the Civil War. This nickname has fallen into disrepute among many due to its connection to chattel slavery in the history of the American South. Others disagree, of course. The phrase still appears on state license plates, as required by state law.

“Alabama the Beautiful” is another popular nickname/slogan. It appears on many of the state’s highway welcome signs. But Alabama’s most common nickname is the Yellowhammer State. Let’s explore how this unique nickname came about. It all starts with a bird.

A male Northern Flicker in flight as it leaves a backyard feeder.
The Northern flicker is the source of Alabama’s famous nickname.

Northern Flicker

Alabama has eight official state animals, including a state bird: the Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus). Few people use this name for the bird, though. This woodpecker is much better known by its common nickname, the yellowhammer.

The bird is found in all 48 states in the continental U.S. It is one of the most common woodpeckers in the nation. Its call, heard in the video below, is familiar throughout much of North America.

The northern flicker is a colorful bird with a blue-gray head marked with bright red on the back of its neck. The woodpecker’s face is light brown, and there is a black upturned crescent between its neck and chest. The bird’s abdomen is speckled with black spots. The back and wings are brown with black markings. Male and female yellowhammers look quite similar, except the males feature a black mustache.

The yellowhammer’s most famous color, though, is only visible when the bird takes flight. The undersides of this woodpecker’s tail and wings are a vibrant yellow. That bright yellow coloration combined with the bird’s constant pecking (hammering) of trees led to the widely used nickname, yellowhammer.

A female Northern Flicker takes flight, from a tree to a feeder.

As this female Northern flicker takes flight, it is easy to see why the bird is known as the yellowhammer.

©iStock.com/Irving A Gaffney

The bird was instrumental in the creation of Alabama’s nickname. This woodpecker was named Alabama’s state bird when Gov. Bibb Graves signed legislation to make the designation official on September 6, 1927. However, the state’s nickname dates back more than six decades prior to that designation.

Civil War Uniforms

During the American Civil War, a group of 90 Confederate cavalry soldiers under the command of the Rev. D.C. Kelly rode north to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. There, these Alabama soldiers met up with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famed Company A.

The soldiers from Alabama wore brand-new gray uniforms made by their wives. These uniforms featured bright yellow trim on the collars, sleeves, and coattails. The vibrant yellow on these new uniforms stood in stark contrast with the battle-worn, mud-and-blood-stained uniforms worn by Company A.

As the Alabama soldiers moved past Forrest’s troops, one of his soldiers yelled out, “Yellowhammer, Yellowhammer, flicker, flicker, flicker!” The soldiers in both groups laughed, realizing that the yellow and gray uniforms of these Alabamian troops resembled the gray and yellow of the well-known woodpecker.

From then on, Kelly’s troops were known as the Yellowhammer Company. That moniker quickly spread to all soldiers from Alabama. Troops from the state were known as Alabama Yellowhammers for the rest of the war. Or, to more closely reflect the dialect of the period, they were known as  “Allerbammer Yallerhammers.” 

When the war was over, Alabama veterans would often wear a yellowhammer feather on their lapels or affixed to their hats. “Yallerhammer Clubs” were established in many cities. The Yellowhammer name stuck and became a source of state pride. Thus, Alabama became known as the Yellowhammer State.

Sergeant Thomas R. Stacey, Montgomery Mounted Rifles; During the Civil War, Stacey served as a captain in Company K of the 2nd Alabama Cavalry, Alabama Department of Archives and History

All Alabama Civil War soldiers became known as Yellowhammers, such as Thomas R. Stacey of Company K in the Second Alabama Cavalry.

©Alabama Department of Archives and History / Public domain – Original / License

Another Yellowhammer

While many Alabamians wear the moniker with pride, they may not realize that the bird which gave rise to the state nickname is not the only bird known as a yellowhammer. There is a passerine bird in the bunting family known as a yellowhammer, with the scientific name Emberiza citrinella. “Citrinella” is the Italian word for a small yellow bird. 

This bird is the most widespread bunting in Europe. It is also native to Asia and has been introduced to New Zealand and Australia.

The male yellowhammer of Eurasia has a brilliant, bright yellow head. Its yellow body is streaked with brown. Its undersides are yellow with white outer tail feathers. The female yellowhammer is a duller yellow with heavier dark streaks.

But, as any Alabamian will tell you, the bird may be pretty, but it is no Allerbammer Yallerhammer!

The yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) is a passerine bird in the bunting family that is native to Eurasia and has been introduced to New Zealand and Australia.

The yellowhammer of Eurasia features a vibrant yellow head and a yellow/brown body.

©gergosz/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Mike is a writer at A-Z Animals where his primary focus is on geography, agriculture, and marine life. A graduate of Cincinnati Christian University and a resident of Cincinnati, OH, Mike is deeply passionate about the natural world. In his free time, he, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks.

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