Identifying Warblers

The Exquisite Cerulean Warbler

“I heard of a boy once who was brought up an atheist. He changed his mind when he saw that there were a hundred-odd species of warblers, each bedecked like the rainbow, and each performing yearly sundry thousands of miles of migration about which the scientist wrote wisely but did not understand.” –    Aldo Leopold

We don’t dive into the deep waters of theology in this space, but the even deeper waters of warblers cannot escape our attention. We’ve noted before that we feel some sympathy for John J. Audubon who shot them. That was the only way he could get them to hold still long enough for a positive identification. (Cameras were not widely available in his time; and cameras in those days required their subjects to sit still for minutes at a time, something impossible for a warbler.)

David Allen Sibley informs us that they are “small active birds with short pointed bills.” Kenn Kaufmann refers to them as “small active birds that often hide among foliage.” Calling them “active” is one of the great understatements of human history.

Warblers are forever skittering about in thick trees and thicker brush. Some skitter on the ground, some in the tree-tops, and some at eye level, but hardly ever out in the open, where a decent bird would sit still for at least a couple of seconds so a struggling birder could identify it. Warblers excuse this nervous, nerve-wracking behavior by telling us that they live by eating insects which are likewise very fast. You won’t catch a warbler calmly eating seed at one of your feeders. Seed doesn’t move fast enough for them. Eating seed lacks challenge; it bores them.

Bachman's Warbler by J.J. Audubon

If you get a glimpse of one it will be in brush so thick that light barely penetrates, and your identification troubles have just begun. If it’s spring and that’s a male you see, you might have a chance. The males are distinguishable in the spring as they spruce themselves up for mating season. The females are fairly drab year around and hard to identify even in the best of circumstances. By autumn, everybody is duller than they were in the spring and even harder to identify.

A few field marks, if you get a glimpse, are definitive. For instance, the Blackburnian Warbler is the only North American Warbler with an orange throat. The Yellow Warbler is the only warbler with yellow spots on its tail. The male is also the only small yellow-breasted bird with red streaks on its breast. That’s a different bird than the Yellow-rumped Warbler which has a solid block of yellow on its rear. If you get a chance to see it.

Some authorities suggest you identify warblers by their song. These authorities have better hearing than I do. I suppose it works – if you spend your life training your ears for warbler songs. Warbler songs tend to be clear and distinguishable. For people with good ears. The rest of us struggle along wondering if that is even a warbler we hear. Worse, most species have more than one song. And their calls are, for the most part, indistinguishable. All they are good for is to alert you that a bird is in the vicinity.

Usually though, you’ll see the flitting warbler before you hear it sing. Then you’ll positively identify it and then hear its song which goes, “Am not! Am not!”

And, if you do see one, the first thing you have to do is make sure it isn’t a vireo or a flycatcher or a kinglet or a goldfinch, all of which sometimes pretend to be warblers.

So do European Robins. According to Sibley, one such robin fooled John Keats,

Stay, ruby-breasted warbler, stay,

And let me see thy sparkling eye,

Oh brush not yet the pearl-strung spray

Nor bow thou pretty head to fly.

No ruby-breasted warblers live in Europe. In fact, Europeans have a more difficult time than their cousins across the Pond: Most Old World warblers are drab, even the males in spring.

Nashville and Tennessee Warblers by Louis Agassiz Fuerte

Back to theology: If Adam named the warblers, he made a bad job of it. For instance, what is a Tennessee Warbler doing calling itself a “Tennessee” Warbler? It breeds in southern Canada and winters in Central America. The only time you’ll find one in Tennessee is during migrations. And you probably won’t see it then either. Warblers, like most song birds, migrate at night, sometimes in flocks so thick they light up radar screens, but not when they can be seen by humans. By the time a Tennessean awakens, that Tennessee Warbler is long gone.

The same thing goes for the “Connecticut” Warbler. Just try to find one in Connecticut. And don’t go to Nashville expecting to see a Nashville Warbler.

But people living in eastern North America see many more warblers than those of us in the west, which causes Easterners more aggravation and may explain why they move faster and are less relaxed than Westerners.

The official name for the warbler family is Parulinae, which is a Latin word meaning, “the hell you say.”


The photo of the Cerulean Warbler was shot by “mdf” on the Wikipedia Commons page and generously made available to the public.


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One Response to “Identifying Warblers”

  1. Kris Ness Says:

    Thank you! I only started birding about a year ago. There are a couple of places around here, notably Nisqually Delta, which claims plenty of Warbler activity. I hear them, but have only seen one Yellow male. I thought it was my novice status, but feel much better knowing how difficult they are to see. I’ll keep at it!

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