An Ode to Warblers

Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer.

Color, music, grace, and flight mingle in the lives of most birds. But no bird, at least here in the Northeast, pulls it off like a warbler.

Warblers are in a family called Parulidae, known for their distinctive morphological and genetic characteristics. But my own definition of a warbler is, simply: a tiny, vibrant, vocal, migratory songbird.

You want vernal pleasures? Find it in warblers. Like gravity, they exert a force of their own on birdwatchers. They’re like sex or chocolate, a Schubert piano trio or shooting the moon in hearts. Once you’ve experienced warblers, you want more warblers.

Across North America, we’ve got warblers brown and streaky like thrushes, warblers marked like zebras, warblers with hoods, warblers with caps, warblers with bibs, a warbler wearing a raccoon mask, and a warbler, the Kirtland’s warbler, that is among the rarest nesting songbirds on the continent. We’ve got warblers clad in crimson, flame, rust, chestnut, lemon, lime, jade, cerulean, and cobalt. Those hues go well with the black, white, and/or gray base coat that most warblers display as part of their intoxicating plumage.

It’s even more intoxicating when you add song. We’ve got warblers that trill, warblers that shout, warblers that buzz, warblers that rub together only a couple notes, and warblers whose songs are nearly inaudible to the human ear.

How big are warblers in the psyche of North American birdwatchers? A birder might find 100 or more species of all kinds during a busy dawn outing, but the real measure of “success” is the warbler tally: contemptible as it may seem to keep count, 20 or more species is respectable. I’ve had a few 30-plus warbler days. And once, during a dawn rainstorm in Ohio, which produced an epic fallout of migrants, I encountered 20 warbler species in my first 20 minutes of birding, which may be my greatest listing feat in nearly four decades of chasing birds.

The western U.S. may have more than a dozen hummingbird species to our one here in the East, but don’t mess with us on warblers. North America has 56 or so warbler species (not including the extinct Bachman’s warbler), two-thirds of which can be found only in the northeastern quarter of the U.S., many of them exclusive to the temperate forests and points north. Now, around us, among us, they’re nesting, from the canopy tops to the bog mats, exploiting our grand flourish of insects, stuffing caterpillars and flies into the gaping beaks of their nestlings.

So stuff a field guide into your pocket and grab the binoculars. In all their Technicolor, the warblers summon you to one of nature’s most vivid displays of life.

Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, field guide, and consulting naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.

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