Saturday, May 22, 2010
American Wood Warblers
The American wood warblers are a western hemisphere family, Parulidae. The family includes 25 genera and about 115 species, although taxonomy is an ever changing science, so don’t hold me to those numbers. 15 genera and 51 species can be found in North America, and the good news is that 70% of those can be seen in the eastern United States as breeding birds or regular migrants. Within Windham County, at least twenty species nest, and another half dozen migrate through.
The wood warblers are often spoken of as the jewels of North American birds; birders come from around the world to search them out. And for good reason - not only can they be a challenge to find among the foliage, but when found they often provide a visual feast. Many of the males are gorgeous, and the females aren’t bad either.
With a common name like “warbler,” one might think that the wood warblers are great songsters. Not necessarily. If you want a good warbling song from a bird, you should listen to the goldfinch, the Indigo Bunting, Warbling Vireo, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak, to name a just a few of the highly competent warbling birds who are not wood warblers.
The term, “warbler,” was first applied to the Eurasian family, Sylvia, in the late eighteenth century; in general, these Old World warblers have attractive songs, or at least marked vocal powers” (Mullarney, et al.) The name, “warbler,” then became attached to the unrelated but similar appearing American family, Parulidae.
Like most families, the American wood warbler family is diverse. Its largest member is the Yellow-breasted Chat which neither looks nor sounds like a warbler. Found to the south of New England, this white-spectacled, chunky warbler scarcely acts like a warbler; vocally it sounds like a thrasher or catbird with hoots, gurgles, clucks, and whistles.
In general, the wood warblers are small songbirds (4-5 inches in length) with short, slender, pointed bills. Most are arboreal, living within a wooded environment in the mid to upper canopy, or in thick, brushy edges or thickets. Many are brilliantly colored, with yellow predominating. Bold black and white patterns often characterize the wood warblers.
Two of the most common and accessible wood warblers are the Yellow Warbler and the Chestnut-sided Warbler. Both are also rather accomplished songsters and both are gorgeous.
The Yellow Warbler sings at the top of thick bushes, in open woods, orchards, willow thickets, or along streamsides; it is usually not far from water: “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m-so-sweet!” He is brilliant yellow, with bright red streaks along his flanks; she is also yellow, but muted and duller. The Yellow Warbler is so common that many birders hardly give it a second look. What a loss! This piece of golden sunshine should be lingered over the way you linger over a fine vintage wine.
The same can be said for the Chestnut-sided Warbler. This active little bird likes the thick leaves of second growth woods and forest edge. With a golden cap, olive back, wing bars, black face stripe, white cheek, chin and breast, and bold chestnut stripes along its flank, this close relative of the Yellow Warbler also sings much like its cousin: “please ... please ... pleased-to-MEETch.”
When you are out in the woods at this time of year and get a good look - or even a fleeting look - at any of the American wood warblers, it is a redundancy to say, “Good birding.”