Chapter Twelve: Too Many Warblers?

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at and I'll email you a copy.

23 August 1997- "Little flurries of warbler and chickadee activity, the first conspicuous dickybird activity in several weeks."

15 August 1998- "Almost every day now, there are little waves of warblers and other dickybirds passing through - easy to miss them if you don't happen to be looking during the right 15-minute period."

31 July 1982- "... Magnolia Warbler (several), Yellowthroat (several), Chestnut-sided warbler (common), redstart (several), Canada warbler (several), Nashville warbler (several), Black-throated green warbler (several), Mourning warbler (several), Blackburnian warbler (common), northern parula (several), black-and-white warbler (several), myrtle warbler (several), ovenbird (several)..."


My first trip east of the Mississippi River did not occur until the mid 1960s, when I was in my mid- twenties, yet I "grew up" with the Eastern birds. At the age of ten, my favorite bird was the scarlet tanager, and I was as closely acquainted with cardinals, blue jays, Baltimore orioles, brown thrashers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and red-headed woodpeckers as I was with the birds in my California backyard. In some ways, the Eastern birds were more familiar to me: most of the Western ones I saw only occasionally and at a distance, but the Eastern birds were at my fingertips every day. Blame it all on the bird books.

Roger Tory Peterson's first edition of "A Field Guide to Western Birds" appeared about the same time that I did [1940], but almost all other bird books [especially those written for children] up to then and for another dozen or so years after were written by Easterners, for Easterners. During my first ten years of life, I had almost no chance of picking up a bird book and seeing a picture of a truly Western species [meaning, something other than a robin or a mourning dove, birds found all across the country]. Since I was truly enamored with both birds and books, it was inevitable that I would become a 10-year old "expert" on the birds of places I'd never been.

[An aside: This double fascination with birds and books extended to the rest of America and to foreign birds as pertinent books became available. It stood me in good stead in at least one situation in later years. My ornithology [bird study] professor in college liked to make his identification tests more "interesting" by supplementing the local birds in the quizzes with specimens from Africa, Europe or South America. He didn't really expect his students to know the exact species, but he felt we should be able to at least put them in a proper family grouping. On more than one occasion, my long-term perusing of every bird book I could lay my hands on paid off in test scores far above the class average. The class was an easy "A" for me!]]

But, back to the Eastern bird books: many of the books included color plates by famous bird artists - Alan Brooks, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Robert Bruce Horsefall, and Roger Tory Peterson, himself. Often, the paintings showed a single species in its native habitat, but sometimes there would be wonderful grouping of birds - like seven or eight different species of warblers on the same spruce bough. I thought those paintings were great to look at, but I don't think I believed (even in my youngest bird-looking days) that such events could really occur in Nature. I thought it was artistic license: a good way to show more birds per book, and a good way to compare the plumage of similar birds, by showing them side-by-side. Actually, I was perceptive for my age and experience: such congregations are pretty unlikely in the western United States.

In the West, there are lots of birds. The great differences in climate, elevation, and vegetation give rise to lots of different niches for different kinds of birds - high mountain birds, desert birds, wet coastal forest birds, dry forest birds, grassland birds, etc. But, in general, each of the various niches [or habitats] supports a relatively few species. Only a few birds are hardy enough to live in the very high mountains, or in the very dry deserts. The evergreen forests are excellent for certain species, but these woods are much the same over vast areas and don't have the variety of foods, nest sites, and shelter needed to support a lot of wildlife. In a mile-square block of the most diverse forest areas of the West, you might be able to find a half-dozen species of warblers, but you would find two in the willows by a creek, one in a patch of brush on a dry hillside, one in an open fir forest, and two in the tops of the highest evergreens. Except in migration, you wouldn't expect to find more than two or three in the same tree or bush.

It's different in the East. There are not the extreme varieties of habitats created by great differences in climate and elevation, but the forests have an amazing number of different types of trees and shrubs in them. A Western forest may have four or five major tree species; a Northeastern or Southeastern forest may have a dozen - even two dozen - common species. [That's one of the reasons that "fall foliage" is much more famous in the East than in the West, but that's another story.] Each of these trees has something a little different to offer to a bird in the way of food, or nesting sites, or shelter from weather or from other critters that would like to eat it. So, on one acre of land in the Eastern forests, you have the potential for many more species of birds than you would find on most one-acre plots in the Western states.

On our 92 acres in northern New Hampshire, we have seen twenty different species of warblers. Some occur only in migration, and some are pretty rare, but it is quite easy to see half a dozen kinds in one grove of trees. My record for one day came on 31 July 1982, when I saw thirteen species in a 3-mile strip along the Dummer Hill Road. If you could see every species of warbler breeding in Washington, Oregon and California, you wouldn't equal that count. Unbelievable as it had seemed to a young California schoolboy, the artists were not lying.

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