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Why warblers matter

Palm warblers are some of the most common early migrants, capable of feeding in a variety of habitats and denizens of nearly every level of canopy and understory
Palm warblers are some of the most common early migrants, capable of feeding in a variety of habitats and denizens of nearly every level of canopy and understory
Christopher Cudworth

More than any other group of birds, warblers symbolize the “pleasure principle” driving millions of birders into the field during spring migration. Warblers are some of the western hemisphere’s most striking, vibrant and active bird species. And because these species move north through the United States from early April through late May, they fuel a birding activity crescendo between those bird-starved winter months and the overripe summer months when birds are preoccupied with nesting and breeding.

Palm warbler in spring migration
Christopher Cudworth

Birders seem to particularly love the fancy-free tide of warbler migration and its hyper-focused abandon. When the morning sun rises and warblers explode into song it can be nearly impossible to separate one bird or species from the other as bird songs overlap and frenetic shapes move through the trees. But that crazed sensation is what birders truly crave: Too many birds to count? All the better!

Explaining the sensory overload of warbler migration to non-birders can be quite challenging. Until someone has seen in person the fiery orange throat of a Blackburnian or the pastiche of yellow, black and rufous on the breast of a Parula warbler in bright morning sunshine, they cannot know the height of anticipation each year when warblers arrive. And the songs! From melodic to buzzy, warblers have evolved to cover the entire sound spectrum in vocalizations.

To find and identify as many species of warbler as possible is at first a complicated challenge for birders. But once established, it becomes an annual rite of passage as that feeling of discovery and satisfaction requires renewal. Forget baseball cards or antiques, Pokemon or even a first rate movie collection. Finding warblers in spring migration is the best collection to have because the acquisition of species comes with the knowledge that as you are building your collection each year you are also giving them away, because no wild thing can be truly owned. This is the zen of birding.

The transient passage of warblers also seems to feed human wanderlust. As warblers pass through on migration, it reminds us where they are going. Those that do not stay and breed in our geography are mostly headed off to the cool north woods. But for warblers that trip does not result in a vacation. Instead, the birds set up territories, try to find a mate and raise young in the face of threats from predators of all types.

But passing through on migration, warblers are not so encumbered. Which is why, when the woods go rife with madly repetitive songs and restless energy, we are drawn to their spirit as well as their beauty. In years when warblers are found in good numbers, they effectively symbolize the random potential and abundance of nature.

Compared to almost any other breed of bird save kinglets and gnatcatchers, warblers are the most hyperactive birds on the planet. Perhaps we respect this energy even as we struggle to track them down with binoculars, scope or camera.

Those warblers that do stick around to breed in Illinois are no less valuable or interesting than the seemingly exotic species that prefer to breed up north. Here in what is formerly known as the Prairie State the challenge for warblers is annually finding suitable places to breed. Hardly any virgin habitat remains except for Southern Illinois, and even those regions have been timbered off at some point in human history. So we should give credit to those species that have adapted to human intervention in the natural environment. And realistically, there is hardly a more hardy, successful species of warbler than common yellowthroat. Yellow warblers do pretty well too. Chestnut-sided, redstart, hooded, golden-winged, blue-winged, cerulean and black-throated blue all have breeding populations, along with that warbler that really isn’t, the yellow-breasted chat. As birders have increased and more birders fan out into the summer fields each year, more is learned about breeding species of warblers and other birds in Illinois and other states.

This is a marked change from just 15 years ago when many birders simply stopped getting out in the field once warbler migration was complete. Back then when June rolled around and the Connecticut and Mourning warblers had finished creeping through the understory on their way north, it was time to pack up the binoculars and forget about birding until the fall warblers came back through in September.

But no more. Birding has grown up and discarded that cotton candy approach to bird study. Birders now participate in year round citizen science. Many conduct vital breeding bird counts to feed giant databases studied by ornithologists to track population trends. In the Chicago region the Bird Conservation Network (BCN) is an ongoing effort to chronicle breeding bird populations. In 10 short years the BCN has revolutionized our view not only of breeding warbler populations, but of other woodland, wetland and grassland birds as well. The summer months are no longer lazy months for birders. No sir.

Warblers still matter more than many other bird because they are like bird pornography in a good way. Even prettier than reality, warblers are key indicators of environmental health in North, Central and South America because losing something that exceptional and striking would make the world a lesser place. This viewpoint is accepted as canonical in most birding circles, and organizations such as the Bird Conservation Alliance (coordinated by the American Bird Conservancy) are leveraging species such as warblers to illustrate the importance of international cooperation to protect habitat and conserve species.

Fortunately learning warbler identification is a rite of indoctrination that really does form a bridge between the casual and serious birder. Teaching beginning or casual birders how to find and identify breeding species such as catbirds, blue jays, robins and thrashers is all very easy compared to helping them find a cerulean at the top of a leafy oak tree. It takes genuine practice and some skill to find a bird like that.

In fact you really cannot expect novice birders to get all that much out of a spring warbler trip unless you’re really lucky and hit one of those days when birds are just draped on the trees. Even then, 75% of the birds you try to help them identify will escape their view. In truth it is essentially the ability to be able to eliminate birds you don’t need to see twice that helps you to find the most diversity of species. But try explaining that to a beginner. You’ll likely get disappointed stare.

Some people do find great pleasure counting the 157th yellow-rumped warbler on a cold spring day. Birding takes all types. But most birders prefer to learn a yellow rumped warbler by glance so they can move on to something else. Then you’re rolling.

When someone asks why you go birding for warblers each spring, do not lie to them. Embrace your inner Ayn Rand. Admit that you are being selfish with your time because you don’t feel whole unless you see at least 20 species of warbler each spring. Because warblers matter. They are the currency of birding in a capitalistic world. Anyone got a worm-eating they want to sell?


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