For the Birds Radio Program: Warblers

Original Air Date: May 17, 2010

When Laura was a child, she thought warblers were the angels of canaries that had died saving the lives of miners. She knows better now, or does she?

Duration: 4′51″


Right now, and for the next two or three weeks, warblers are flooding through the upper Midwest. Most are just passing through, but many will stop here to nest. May is my favorite month of the year because of this amazing phenomenon, filled with so much color and song that I’m amazed that I never even noticed it until I became a birder.

Cities don’t provide good habitat for warblers, but during migration warblers have no choice but to travel through them, so without leaving our backyards we can see quite a few. When I was a little girl, I once saw a flock of warblers in the maple tree outside my bedroom window in a suburb of Chicago, though at the time I had no idea what they were. In my mind’s eye, I can clearly picture a brilliant orange and shiny black Blackburnian among them, and a lemon yellow and licorice black Magnolia Warbler. The whole group showed vivid colors and patterns.

The only birds of that size that I’d ever seen were my Grandpa’s canaries, but these were so much more vividly colored that I concluded that these weren’t earthly birds at all, but rather the resurrected angels of canaries that had died saving the lives of miners. Half a century later, I still find that idea appealing, but I also love the reality—that right here on earth, tiny, brilliantly beautiful little creatures pass among us. People yearn for evidence of intelligent life on other planets and to be touched by an angel, but when I finally opened my eyes to the presence of warblers, I found plenty of intelligence and a source of grace right here on earth.

Over the years, I’ve seen 26 species of warblers in my own yard in Duluth. I’m still missing Golden-winged Warbler on my yard list, but my insatiable listing habits make me ever hopeful. Even after I finally see that one, the joy of seeing warblers will make me continue running to the window or outside to scan my trees anytime in May when I notice a chickadee at my feeders. Chickadees serve as a welcoming committee for migrating birds—chickadees allow birds of any but predacious species to join their flocks, and warblers take advantage of how chickadees know every nook and cranny of their territories, where all the best bugs are, and where the predators hang out. Also, chickadees call out whenever danger approaches. I might be pouring half-and-half into my coffee when out the corner of my eye I spot a chickadee, and suddenly I’m on the porch scanning through every branch of my backyard trees for the flitting movements of warblers.

There aren’t nearly as many warblers as there were 35 years ago when I saw my first ones—warblers and the quality habitat and clean environment they need have never been high on the list of priorities of politicians, and since most people aren’t even aware of their existence, it’s understandable that there isn’t any serious or even miniscule political movement to make the world more hospitable for them. We haven’t had a huge migration day of them so far this spring—they tend to pile up best on foggy or drizzling mornings during warm fronts. There were huge numbers of them in Ohio late last week. Up here I’ve seen a good variety of individual warblers on territory, which in some ways is even more rewarding than seeing huge numbers of migrants, because it’s the birds who have survived the journey and are starting the breeding season that ensure the future of these jewels. Warblers seldom visit feeders, and their size and secretive ways will long continue to keep them off the radar screen of most of us mere mortals. But whenever anyone gets a good look at even one of these angel birds, there’s a rise in the level of grace and joy right here on earth.