For the Birds Radio Program: Chestnut-sided Warbler

Original Air Date: June 7, 1995

What’s a Chestnut-sided Warbler doing on Laura Erickson’s hand? Hint: better have a paper towel handy. 4:07 (Recast in June 2000.)

Audio missing


I’m writing the script for this program at my computer, with a Chestnut-sided Warbler sitting on my wrist. He’s a dear little guy, his bright black eyes looking right into mine, and his soft feathers pressing against my fingers are the perfect, brilliant plumage of a spring male. He sprained his wing bonking into the window of a Lester Park School teacher friend of mine, but he looks pretty good now, and should be off and flying in a day or two.

Wood warblers are among the most beautiful of all birds. I feel a thrill looking at just about any warbler in a tree, and can’t even begin to describe the feeling of holding one in my hand. Diamonds and other precious gems are beautiful, but it’s a cold beauty, hard enough to cut glass. Warblers are achingly warm and fragile. My cupped hand feels the rapid respiration and heart beat pulsing within the tiny frame, the warmth of a body maintained at about 102 degrees, the weightlessness of a creature made up of feathers and air sacs and little else except spirit. But if warblers are fragile, they’re also tough–this third-of-an-ounce adult has already survived at least one round-trip migration. He spent last winter somewhere between southern Nicaragua and Panama and then returned all the way to Minnesota. Now, at the peak of his annual yearning for a mate and territory, he’s stuck in a house for couple of days, but despite his disappointment, he seems to be making the best of things, and his curiosity about the enormous new friend he’s made overpowers both his fear and his eagerness to escape.

Warblers are so tiny that scientists have long believed that their brains are too small to be capable of learning much; that they’re strictly creatures of instinct. But in my experience, warblers are amazingly adaptable, and quickly learn all kinds of things in captivity. Wild adult Blue Jays and crows, which are ostensibly so intelligent, don’t adapt at all well to captivity, and even after years of gentle care seldom adapt gracefully to humans if they grew up with their own kind. But it only takes a matter of minutes for most warblers to figure out that we don’t mean them any harm, and they quickly learn to take mealworms from our hands and to sit on our shoulder.

This little Chestnut-side is as pleasant company as it is beautiful, but in its natural habitat it would be a lot more feisty. This is one of the more territorial of warbler species, maintaining a well-defined territory in the tropics throughout the winter season and another up north when it returns to breed. Like most woodland birds that stay at eye level , the Chestnut-sides song is sung at a medium frequency, and the loud, strong voice is easy for most people to hear. Although the male’s song is both a bold territorial proclamation and a lusty invitation to a female for romance and baby-making, humans translate it far more primly as “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” or “I’m here to see Miss Beecher!” I haven’t been able to get this little guy to sing, probably because he doesn’t really feel at home here, and also because if a female was around, he wouldn’t want her to notice him until he was in top form. When I played a couple of recordings of other Chestnut-sides,, he seemed to tighten up and withdraw, so I quickly stopped.

His wing is healing quickly, and by the time this program airs, he’ll be back in the wild, singing and finding love and greedily snatching up as much land as he can possibly defend. I’ll be happy to see him go, but I’m awfully glad he came into my life to briefly touch my hand and my heart.