For the Birds Radio Program: Warblers

Original Air Date: May 17, 1996

What do Cadbury Creme Eggs have to do with warblers? Find out on today’s For the Birds.

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After a shower, we search the sky for rainbows dreaming of that pot of gold at its end. But we hardly need to look for insubstantial tricks of lighting to find vivid rainbows even in the midst of a shower. During May, Northland weather systems carry with them a rainbow of birds. Warblers flit through drenched and dripping trees, especially on drizzly, dismal days, brightening forests and backyards alike with brilliant, living color.

These birds of almost every hue blaze with life and passion. They wintered in the tropics, most hiding their brilliance under dull, wintry plumage, but as the earth’s angle changed with the coming spring, a spark of sunlight ignited them, setting their feathers aflame and their hearts afire with yearning to return to the north woods, to fly home once again where their passion for land and love will be consummated ultimately igniting the fires of new little warblers to come.

Glowing with inner light and outer brilliance, warblers bring sunshine to gloomy days. Each one is pleasing, from the aptly named Black-and-white Warbler, magically transcending his limited color palette with fine detailing, to the fiery American Redstart, a spitfire in action and plumage both. The Blackburnian Warbler takes its name from an Englishwoman, Anna Blackburn, patron of early American ornithologists—the warbler’s black and burning orange colors make the name doubly appropriate. The Magnolia Warbler’s sweet combination of lemon and licorice, its black tail sporting two jaunty squares of white which it fans to make sure we notice. The most abundant warbler, the Yellow-rumped (a.k.a.the “butter-butt”), tsks from trees like an annoyed math teacher. The Palm Warbler, frequenting rooftops and lawns, daintily wags its tail up and down to show off lemon undertail feathers and makes a softer “tsk,” more like an annoyed music teacher.

Belying their names, most warblers sing buzzy, often hard-to-hear tunes rather than warbles, but two are known for cheerfully loud songs. The Common Yellowthroat, a black-masked little bandit, casts its wichity-wichity-wichity spell over marshes and thickets. In woods and forests, the Ovenbird yells Teacher! Teacher! Teacher! throughout summer vacation.

Soft new leaves are easy for baby caterpillars to digest, so many butterfly and moth species hatch right when tree buds are opening, and warblers time their migration to capitalize on this newly-abundant fuel. Some also catch emerging aquatic species, fluttering out to snatch them over streams and lakes. Warblers are ever on the move, flitting in and out of foliage, and they’re tiny as well, most measuring between 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 inches and weighing 1/4 to 1/3 ounce. The thirty species likely to migrate through the Northland present a dizzying array to the beginner, but there’s joy in the confusion if you take pleasure in the process as much as the end result of assigning each a name. Wingbars, tail spots, eye lines, eye rings, yellow rump patches, and breast streaking all provide clues, and patient persistence is often rewarded with a definitive I.D. But, like rainbows, some warblers refuse to be captured or categorized on a bird list.

Warblers have the magical power to transform dull mosquitoes and sluggish caterpillars into brilliant feathers and hot-blooded activity—something the finest chemists can never hope to do. Every one of these bug eaters is worth seeing and knowing. But, like rainbows and Cadbury Creme Eggs, the spring passage of warblers is ephemeral. Enjoy them while you can.