18 August 2009

Those Misnamed Warblers and Little Summer Episodes

By Sandy Griswold.

Doubtless there are many who will not agree with me, yet with all due reverence for the earlier of bird students and bird systemists, I cannot help but believe that those capable authorities who first christened our hosts of little feathered mites who haunt our woods and fields from spring to fall time, as warblers, were certainly actuated by some peculiar quality with which we today are unfamiliar, for the truth of the matter is that there is not a real warbler among them, unless we might except the yellow-breasted chat, quite numerous with us from May to September.

The Warbler Not a Warbler.

The truth is, there is not one really good singer in the group that can be compared, even by the greatest stretch of the imagination, to any of our thrushes, the robin, chewink, catbird, bluebird, rose-breasted grosbeak or meadowlark.

Almost wholly the vocal repertoire of the entire family consists of a barely audible, fine-threaded, seeping little lisp, that by no twist of auricular sensitiveness can be called a song. Sweet and pleasing enough, to be sure, are these filmy-beaded notes, but so homogeneous in rhythm and melodious sound that they go but a short ways in any attempt at establishing them among our real avian choirists and therefore the title, warbler, is a misnomer.

However, they have all winged their way south now, both singer and pretender, but being an able sort of genius ourselves, we are willing to accept the verdict, and proceed to tell you what we know of the lovely little pixies of our woody tangles.

A Thin Bird Year.

Despite the fact that the past spring and summer were extremely variable, not to say abnormal, with but little permanent weather of any sort. It was a poor bird year.

There was nothing like the customary plentifulness of the warblers and finches, and those that usually loiter here till late August, at least; they were gone long before their time, and as paradisaical as the past two weeks of October has been, I did not see a single specimen, excepting one quite large bunch of purple warblers, among the rarest of their kind here at any time, and these birds having arrived at our little wonder park just adjacent to my abiding place after most of its kind had gone on south.

What I Saw.

Through the summer, while I saw some blue-headed warblers, spring siskins and pewees off and on about this same tiny metropolitan wilderness, the passage of all the hyperborean species was extremely brief. Even the redheads, the flickers, hairys and downies were more conspicuous by their absence than I have known them in many long years of watching. At odd times, too, while I did not succeed in locating them, I heard the seeping melody of the yellow warbler, and the tender, lisping "see-see-see-see" of his close kindred, the white and black warbler, but the trills of the song sparrow was almost totally missing, and the truth remains that the orientation of most of our summer birds went awry, and it must have been that it was in other regions they passed the time away.

A Lucky Individual.

At that, what lucky one, indeed, have I been in having such an unusual bird haven at my very door as these park-like little groves out along the boulevard have always been. They have often saved me from gallivanting off into the unknown hinterlands up or down the old river road, on legs not nearly as strong and supple as they once were. And at that I did make many pilgrimages thither.

I cannot refrain from telling you of a pleasant little episode that befell me one Sunday in late April. It was quite early in the morning when I espied a dark hued siskin flitting, and twittering softly as he flitted, among the fast leafing branches of the huge walnut tree that shades our front porch and windows. When it suddenly seemed satisfied with its explorations it darted off over the boulevard for the thicker trees beyond, but grabbing hat and glasses I quickly followed.

About the Old Cottonwood.

Rich was my reward. Round about an old dead cottonwood, which had been permitted to stand picturesquely on the west side of an old Saddle creek ravine, where the bridal wreath flourishes in wondrous profusion all summer long, I found not only this little member of the family, himself, but a veritable shower of them, as they eddied in and out of the drooping branches and the clustering bushes, all twittering in unison as you can hear the redwings twitter today if you drive out almost anywhere along our lowlands.

Now I want to inform you that the siskin is by no means a common bird, and yet fairly plentiful in spots about Omaha. They are marvelously energetic, highly restless, never still an instant, while on their way, but withal a most lovely bird.

Like the Yellowbird.

While a close relative of the gold-finch, our incomparable little yellowbird, they are a lot smaller and more like the purple finch, especially the females, but easily distinguished by their pointed beak, with the same streaky back and underparts.

I lingered long and made quite a study of this unexpected little flock, watching them closely as they flivvered around upon the ground under the bridalwreath, every whipstitch lifting themselves, up to the drooping branches of the larger growths, only to drop as suddenly to the ground again, until suddenly, up they got and whisked away in a little greenish cloud, proving to me that they were the first visitants of their kind, but had not yet reached the destination they had in mind.

First of Vernal Tourists.

Usually they come with the first of the vernal tourists, but are one of the last to build and nest, and are often confused with many similar in color and habit, consequently sometimes difficult to actually identify.

For that matter, however, I do not believe there is a single bird expert in the wide world, who can name at sight all the warblers that come to us in the spring, for they are certainly a most undependable and contradictory group of all our common birds.

October 30, 1927. Sunday World-Herald 63(5): 13-W.

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