For the Birds Radio Program: Magnolia Warbler

Original Air Date: June 13, 2000 (estimated date)

This colorful warbler has a tricky song but is easy to identify if you see it.

Duration: 4′00″


(Recording of a Magnolia Warbler)

Many warbler songs are notoriously difficult, and one of the hardest to memorize is that of the Magnolia Warbler. The problem is that different Magnolias have different sounding voices, and even one individual can sing a variety of melodies. But most of the songs are short, simple phrases, and they often sing low enough in trees that with patience you can find the singer.

(Recording of a Magnolia Warbler)

Magnolias may be difficult to identify by song, but they are as easy as they are pleasurable to identify in the flesh. The strikingly handsome males are a sweet combination of lemon and licorice. They’re yellow with black streaks beneath, a bluish-black back and tail, a gray crown, a black cheek with a white eyebrow stripe, and bold white markings on the wings and tail. The square white bands on the outer tail feathers are similar to the orange or yellow tail bands on redstarts, and like redstarts, Magnolia Warblers often fan their tails in display to emphasize the pattern. Females are a bit duller, but even they have the yellow, streaked underside and the diagnostic white tail patches. Magnolias have a noticeable yellow rump, but if you remember that Magnolias have yellow underparts, you shouldn’t mistake them for Yellow-rumped Warblers.

In spite of their name, Magnolia Warblers are birds of the northern coniferous forest. In a stroll through some of the spruce woods of Port Wing, Wisconsin, in June or early July, I can easily find 10 males on territory in a morning. They received their inappropriate name from Alexander Wilson, who first collected some migrants of this species in 1810, in a magnolia tree near Ft. Adams, Mississippi. A more recent Alexander, Alexander Sprunt, contends that naming them “Balsam or Spruce Warbler would be better by far than Magnolia.”

Although there are at least a few records of banded Magnolias living more than 6 years, these 1/3 ounce jewels lead lives fraught with peril. Radio antennae and lighthouse lights lure many to their deaths every spring and fall. Most Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins migrate at the same time as these and other warblers, which gives the warbler family one of its common names up here, “Merlin food.” And late spring and early fall storms take an incredible toll.

Texas ornithologist Pauline James wrote of May 7, 1951, from Padre Island, Texas, “Over 10,000 exhausted small birds perished here this day, about 85% of them warblers. Of 2,421 birds actually collected, 1,109 were Magnolia Warblers.” Migrating warblers are generally easier to see on cold, foggy, drizzly days when the temperature hovers around 35 or 40–days when insects are scarce and the warblers flit on the ground in desperation. But I far prefer seeing them on their nesting territories, when I can enjoy each one at leisure, and when they are safe on their home soil. And that goes doubly for the Magnolia Warbler. As Alexander Sprunt said, “Few birds are as spectacular in their habitat as this one. Seen amid the semigloom of the silent ranks of evergreens, it seems to glow with living color.”

(Recording of a Magnolia Warbler)

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