Bird Identification – Yellow Warbler – Summer Yellowbird – Wild Canary
Rather than live where the skies are gray and the air is cold, this adventurous little warbler will travel two thousand miles or more to follow the sun. A trip from Panama to Canada and back again within five months does not appall him. By living in perpetual sunshine his feathers seemed to have absorbed some of it, so that he looks like a stray sunbeam playing among the shrubbery on the lawn, the trees in the orchard, the bushes in the roadside thicket, the willows and alders beside the stream. He is shorter than the English sparrow by an inch. Although you may not get close enough to see that his yellow breast is finely streaked with reddish brown, you may know by these marks that he is not what you at first suspected he was—somebody’s pet canary escaped from a cage. It is not he but the goldfinch—the yellow bird with the black wings—who sings like a canary. Happily he is so neighbourly that every child may easily become acquainted with this most common member of the large warbler family.
I don’t believe there is anybody living who could name at sight every one of the seventy warblers that visit the United States. Some are very gaily coloured and exquisitely marked, as birds coming to us from the tropics have a right to be. Some are quietly clad; some, like the redstart, are dressed quite differently from their mates and young; others, like the yellow warbler, are so nearly alike that you could see no difference between the male and female from the distance of a few feet. Some live in the tops of evergreens and other tall trees; others, like the Maryland yellow-throat, which seems to prefer low trees and shrubbery, are rarely seen over twelve feet from the ground. A few, like the oven-bird, haunt the undergrowth in the woods or live most of the time on the earth. With three or four exceptions all the warblers dwell in woodlands, and it is only during the spring and autumn migrations that we have an opportunity to become acquainted with them; when they come about the orchard and shrubbery for a few days’ rest and refreshment during their travels. Fortunately the cheerful little yellow warbler stays around our homes all summer long. Did you ever know a family so puzzling and contradictory as the Warblers?
The great majority of these fascinating and exasperating relatives are nervous, restless little sprites, constantly flitting from branch to branch and from twig to twig in a never-ending search for small insects. As well try to catch a weasel asleep as a warbler at rest. People who live in the tropics, even for a little while, soon become lazy. Not so the warblers, whose energy, like a steam engine’s, seems to be increased by heat. Of course they do not undertake long journeys merely for pleasure, as wealthy human tourists do. They must migrate to find food; and as insects are most plentiful in warm weather, you see why these atoms of animation keep in perpetual motion. They are among the last migrants to come north in the spring and among the first to leave in the autumn because insects don’t hatch out in cool weather, and the birds must always be sure of plenty to eat. Travelling as they do, chiefly by night, they are killed in numbers against the lighthouses and electric light towers which especially fascinate these poor little victims.
Who first misled us by calling these birds warblers? The truth is there is not one really fine singer, like a thrush, in the whole family. The yellow-breasted chat has remarkable vocal ability, but he is not a real musician like the mockingbird, who also likes to have fun with his voice. The warblers, as a rule, have weak, squeaky, or wiry songs and lisping tseep call notes, neither of which ought to be called a warble. The yellow warbler sings as acceptably as most of his kin. Seven times he rapidly repeats “Sweet—sweet—sweet—sweet—sweet—sweeter—sweeter” to his sweetheart, but this happy little lovemaker’s incessant song is apt to become almost tiresome to everybody except his mate.
What a clever little creature she is! More than any other bird she suffers from the persecutions of that dusky rascal, the cowbird. In May, with much help from her mate, she builds an exquisite little cradle of silvery plant fibre, usually shreds of milkweed stalk, grass, leaves, and caterpillars’ silk, neatly lined with hair, feathers, and the downy felt of fern fronds. The cradle is sometimes placed in the crotch of an elder bush, sometimes in a willow tree; preferably near water where insects are abundant, but often in a terminal branch of some orchard tree.
Scarcely is it finished before the skulking cowbird watches her chance to lay an egg in it that she may not be bothered with the care of her own baby. She knows that the yellow warbler is a gentle, amiable, devoted mother, who will probably work herself to death, if necessary, rather than let the big baby cowbird starve. But she sometimes makes a great mistake in her individual. Not all yellow warblers will permit the outrage. They prefer to weave a new bottom to their nest, over the cowbird’s egg, although they may seal up their own speckled treasures with it. Suppose the wicked cowbird comes back and lays still another egg in the two-storied nest: what then? The little Spartan yellow bird has been known to weave still another layer of covering rather than hatch out an unwelcome, greedy interloper to crowd and starve her own precious babies. Two and even three-storied nests are to be found by bright-eyed boys and girls.