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In 1819, Alabama became the 22nd American state; since then, it has been nicknamed the Yellowhammer State, the Heart of Dixie and the Cotton State. The yellowhammer nickname comes from the American Civil War, when a group of soldiers from Alabama were called by that name as a result of yellow pieces of cloth that adorned their uniforms. These yellow highlights resembled the colorings of a small bird known as the yellowhammer. The popularity of the nickname grew over time and was eventually applied to all Confederate soldiers from the state. After the war, Alabama became known unofficially as the Yellowhammer State.
"Yellowhammer" is another name for the yellow-shafted flicker, a member of the woodpecker family. It is not related to the Eurasian bird of the same name. The males of this species have yellow markings below their wings and tail and look a bit like a hammer as they peck for underground ants and other insects.
During the Civil War, a fresh company of cavalry soldiers from Huntsville, Alabama, were joining up with Confederate units in Kentucky. Veteran soldiers in their war-worn clothing observed the clean, new uniforms of the Alabama company and the bright yellow flourishes on their collars and sleeves. One veteran soldier cried out, "Yellowhammer, yellowhammer, flicker, flicker!" when the men from Huntsville rode by, and they were soon known as the Yellowhammer Company. By the end of the war, all Confederate soldiers from Alabama were called yellowhammers. The yellowhammer continued to be an important symbol for Confederate veterans after the Civil War, and Alabama became known as the Yellowhammer State.
In 1927, the yellowhammer was officially designated as the Alabama state bird by an act of the legislature. The nickname remains popular in Alabama culture. As of 2011, the yellowhammer name has made it onto a wide variety of businesses in the state. One of the University of Alabama’s traditional cheers, Rammer Jammer, references the yellowhammer.
The Yellowhammer State nickname is not an official designation — the state has never declared an official nickname. Until 2002, the phrase, “the Heart of Dixie” appeared on the state’s license plates because of Alabama’s central position in the Southeastern U.S. The state also has been called the Cotton State, which refers to the past importance of the crop to Alabama’s economy. This last nickname has fallen into disuse as other crops and industries have achieved prominence in the state.