For the Birds Radio Program: National Warbler Awareness Week: Blackburnian Warbler

Original Air Date: June 1, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about her favorite warbler, the Blackburnian.

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(Recording of a Blackburnian Warbler)

When warblers are migrating in May, most birders are so anxious to see them all—to list 25 or more species in a single day—that their binoculars never linger on a single one for more than the moments necessary to identify it. Spring warbler migration is a fleeting phenomenon, and drinking it all in before it vanishes is a frenzied affair. But even people cursed with the lust for the list pause an extra moment when a beam of sunlight strikes a Blackburnian Warbler’s golden throat. Elliott Coues, an ornithologist back in the 1800’s, wrote, “There is nothing to compare with the exquisite hue of this Promethean torch.”

“Blackburnian” isn’t a dictionary word, but it’s evocative of this bird’s flaming orange throat, crown, and face, in brilliant contrast with clearly defined black facial markings. Ironically, the name “Blackburnian” was applied to this bird not out of the necessity to create a unique and lovely word to describe so uniquely beautiful a creature, but simply to honor a rich British woman, Anna Blackburn, whose patronage supported many ornithologists during the late 1800’s and enabled her to decorate her English home with stuffed North American birds.

The worst problem about Blackburnian Warblers is that their song is extremely variable, and is often mistaken for other species. One song sounds almost exactly like a Black-and-White Warbler’s song, and others sound similar to Magnolias, Cape Mays, Nashvilles, and Yellow-rumps. Unfortunately, the main feature that all Blackburnian Warbler songs do share is their extremely high pitch—they are completely out of the hearing range of a great number of people.

(Recording of a Blackburnian Warbler)

To match the high notes of its songs, the Blackburnian Warbler spends most of its life as high up as possible. It is truly a bird of the heavens, flitting among spires of spruce and balsam and in the sun-dappled crowns of aspen and birch. This quarter-ounce sprite is so delicate that when it alights on even the outermost twig of a trembling aspen, the leaves barely rustle. It’s more often seen on migration than on its breeding territory, since once it finds its way to the northwoods to breed, it tends to stay in the canopy, but if you have patience, it’s possible not only to locate it in its heavenly treetops, but also to occasionally see it at eye level.

Like many of its family, the Blackburnian is attracted to running water, and many times I’ve seen one bathing in a brook, water droplets glistening on its glowing throat in the early morning sunlight. Once you get the hang of it, males aren’t too hard to find as they sing on an outer branch or the spire of a spruce. Either to display their flaming throat to other males or to soak up a few rays of sunlight for their own comfort, they tend to face the sun while they sing, and I often see one sitting still, preening or resting between songs, it’s throat vivid orange against the blue sky.

Unlike many warblers, Blackburnians nest in the branches of trees rather than on the ground. The nest is usually out toward the end of a high limb, where the mother and babies are safe from virtually all predators. The highest nest ever located was 84 feet up in a spruce. Without the aid of a fairy godmother, four scrawny nestlings, stuffed only with beetles, caterpillars, and other bugs, are each magically transformed within a few weeks into four new and exquisite Blackburnian Warblers, to delight our eyes and touch our souls.

(Recording of a Blackburnian Warbler)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”