For the Birds Radio Program: Parula Nest

Original Air Date: July 8, 1997

Laura watched a pair of Parulas build a nest while she was up on Burntside Lake this year. (Not certain of year or date)

Audio missing


The tiniest warbler in North America, and in my opinion the cutest, is the Northern Parula, or “paroola” or something like that–no one seems to know for sure. This atom-sized bird, measuring only 3 3/4 inches long with a 7-inch wingspan, barely tips the scale at 8 grams–it would take 12 to 16 of them to balance a single quarter-pound hamburger patty. This is also one of the bluest warblers. Even females are pretty, with an azure back, small, sharp white wingbars and eye rings, a white tummy, and yellow breast. The male’s yellow throat and breast have golden orange highlights, and he has a dark breast band like a necklace, with bright orange highlights beneath.

Of course, it’s extremely difficult to actually observe all that detail in the field, because this is not only one of the littlest warblers but also one of the most active. I hear several every year on Burntside Lake near Ely while I teach an elderhostel class there, but the little twerps are usually so hard to see that few if any of the elderhostelers ever actually got to see one–at least, not until this year,, when a pair of Parulas decided to set up housekeeping in a dead balsam just a few feet from the entrance to Camp du Nord. Just about any time anyone went to the spot, the female was either already working on the nest, or was coming in with more nesting materials. And the handsome little male was always near at hand, singing or giving her what I’m sure must have been helpful suggestions as she did all the construction work.

Parula Warblers make a lovely nest, intricately woven from usnea lichen–that pale green wispy stuff that hangs from dead trees, especially balsams. People nicknamed this plant old man’ s beard. Edward Lear’s 1846 Book of Nonsense included a limerick about one old man’s beard: There was an old man with a beard, / Who said: “It is just as I feared!/ Two owls and a hen,/ Four larks and a wren,/ Have all built their nests in my beard.” Lear couldn’t have titled this his Book of Nonsense if he’d made one of those species a Northern Parula–they always build their nests in old man’ s beard–at least the ones up here do. In the deep South, they make the nest from Spanish moss.

Although there was plenty of old man’s beard already hanging from branches on decaying balsams on Burntside Lake, my little female started on a clean branch, and brought tiny pieces of the lichen one by one, weaving them together with quick, delicate movements of her beak. At first it didn’t look like much, but within a couple of days she had fashioned a little, loosely woven purse. Little by little the bottom filled out, and then the sides, and by week’s end, it was almost finished. It was hard leaving her when my class was over–I’d have loved to stick around and keep track of the little family. Within minutes of our first discovering the nest, she had decided we were okay, and she went about her business ignoring us as we watched day after day. The warm feeling that we were becoming fast friends was stronger in us than in her–noticed that Christmas that she didn’t send us cards with news of the family and little school photos of her brood. It’s just as well–there are plenty of sad things that happen to little warblers as they learn how to fly, and then as they make their first migration–her Christmas cards may well have been too sad to send anyway. It’s more pleasant imagining the little ones living long, carefree, happy lives.