By Keith Michael
Last year when I wrote my June article The One I’m With I was well along in my Corona Birds neighborhood marathon, already logging 76 different species out of my final tally of 79 during the March to June COVID-19 lockdown. My “anniversary bird,” the bird that I saw a year ago from when I started writing this June’s article, is this masked dynamo, the Common Yellowthroat.
First of all, immediately when you see this charming wind-up toy of a bird, scuttling non-stop through the underbrush, darting inside a bush, making an aerial dash up to a tree branch, then diving back down to shuffle among the leaves again, “Common” is NOT what comes to mind. If you’ve never seen one before, you have no idea whether it is an everyday bird or a mega-rarity dropped in from the Caribbean. The male is a roly-poly butterball with an olive back, brilliant yellow throat, and a snazzy black harlequin mask. Wouldn’t Masked Yellowthroat or Masked Warbler or Black-masked Warbler be more appropriate?
In fairness to the “Bird Naming Committee,” it’s true that the female Common Yellowthroat, though sporting a yellow throat, does NOT have a mask, so calling her a Masked Warbler when she DOESN’T have a mask would be gender discrimination. Of course, many bird names suffer from this gender bias: names based on visual characteristics of the guys rather than the gals. My favorite exception to this often glaring rule is the Red-necked Phalarope named for the glamorous apparel of the damsel not the more hum-drum dude’s duds!
But “Common” is not such a misnomer once you get to know them. In the city, the Common Yellowthroat is, in fact, one of the few flashy warblers that stick around, unlike the 30 or more other kinds of warblers who give us the endorphin-rush onceover during migration, then keep on traveling to locales more to their liking. The unmistakably named Yellow Warbler and the acrobatic, fan-dancing American Redstart (another gender-biased name as the womenfolk are Yellowstarts) are other commoners who like it here and stay for the summer. I’ve already seen Common Yellowthroats plying the edges of Hudson River Park, Abingdon Square, Jane Street Garden, and the front gardens of Perry and Charles Streets. Those might not be the spots that they’ll set up housekeeping, but one can reliably see them in suitable places in every borough.
Even though masked, with an Instagram-friendly white border at the top, stealth is not always their game. If you don’t have a habit of peaking under bushes to notice birds’ hither and yon foraging, you might pick out the Common Yellowthroat’s distinctive, surprisingly loud, calling card chip note, or their even more obvious witchety witchety witchety song, like leaning on a doorbell. Beware though, one can easily confuse their song with the Carolina Wren’s cheerful tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle chant. Either way, if you follow the song, you’re likely to locate the songster, and you’ll be rewarded with a moment or two of avian-induced joy—before they fly away.
A sincere thank you to the many WestView News readers who sent condolences for the loss of my ornery birding partner of 12 years, my corgi Miss Millie. Visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.