By Keith Michael
“My name is Alice, but—”
“It’s a stupid name enough!” Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. “What does it mean?”
“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.
—Through the Looking Glass,
“Milton! Sitting down to scratch your head in the middle of the crosswalk is not a good idea!” Countdown: Ten, nine, eight, seven…“Millie, come on!” Four, three, two…(foot stamp behind her tail-less rump)…ONE. “Millicent, let’s run.” Her stubby corgi legs a-chug-chug-chug safely across six lanes of traffic, dodge the equally treacherous bike lane, and spring into Hudson River Park, white Juneberry flower petals swirling as we pass.
“Hey Fluffy, are you winded? Let’s sit on a bench.” Or I’ll sit on the bench and study the Warblers in my Kaufman field guide, prepping for the onslaught of spring migration, while Millie slumps at my feet. Her idea of being Thoroughly Modern is to be a corgi-potato letting the world drift by on the outgoing tide. If only she had thumbs, I bet she’d be a whiz at texting.
Every spring, I have to refresh my memory for the anticipated Warbler migration. Most of these colorful fidgeters are merely pausing in New York along their arduous way from wintering in South America to family-raising territories further north. Goading my memory are the triple-pronged Warbler questions: What do they look like? What do they sound like? And then, what are their names?
First off, there is confusion about even the name ‘Warbler.’ Most Warblers don’t warble. They have distinct calls by species, often an endlessly-repeated mantra that lets others of their kind know that they are nearby, “Hey, I’m here. No, over here. Up here. Surprise.” Whistles and buzzes and trills. But few sing, what one might call, a burbling warble. There are only about 40 species of these contra-onomotopoetically-named birds regularly migrating up and down the East Coast, so it’s really not an overwhelming number of birds to learn. Ha, I lie! It’s still endlessly challenging.
Only a handful of Warblers are helpfully named. The Yellow Warbler could be the Webster’s definition of yellow. The Yellow-throated does, in fact, have a yellow throat, and the Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green both do have black throats on otherwise blueish or greenish costumes, respectively. The Black-and-white has satisfying zebra stripes while the Blackpoll does have a little black beany. A Cerulean is cerulean-colored if you know what color that is. The Yellow-breasted Chat has a sorbet-yellow breast (and can produce a raucous hodgepodge of uncanny noises, and even stretch its repertoire to a bit of bona fide warbling). However, although it’s considered a Warbler, one needs to remember that its family name is Chat (thank you very much).
Moving on to other avian body parts: The Yellow-rumped does, indeed, have a “butter butt” yellow rump while the Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided have appropriately-hued breasts and sides (though, believe me, I still get confused as to which one is which). But honestly, you’ll be hard pressed to try to identify an Orange-crowned by the seemingly one or two orange-tinged feathers lurking beneath its otherwise olivey-yellow pate. Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers are suitably winged, however, they can interbreed and produce hybrids known alternatively as Brewster’s or Lawrence’s or what-the-hell-is-that ones in between.
Now for the metaphorical names. The Hooded has a black hood, the Mourning perhaps could be thought to have a demure gray veil of mourning, and the Prothonotary, a snazzy yellow bird, was named after the bright golden robes worn by papal clerks, known as prothonotaries, in the Roman Catholic church. (Who knew?) Pine Warblers, if seen on territory in the summer, do frequent pine trees, and perhaps, Palm Warblers snoop around palm trees on their winter vacations, but good luck identifying them by location, location, location at any other time. To balance this, Pines have a congenial twitter, and Palms have an identifying tic of constantly bobbing their tails.
Somehow there emerged a smattering of geographically-identified Warblers (completely unenlightening when seeing them in the West Village, and these, quite frankly, one just needs to memorize): Canada, Cape May, both Nashville and Tennessee (two different species, their names are useful only to help remember that the two-syllable Nash-ville has a two-part song, and the tri-syllabic Ten-nes-see, a three-part song), Prairie, Kentucky, and Connecticut. And there’s the “brown page” in the bird guide (Really? These are Warblers too?): the high-stepping Ovenbird (charmingly named for the bee-hive-brick-oven-shaped nest that they build), Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes (useless names when seen at the same time along a Staten Island stream), the Worm-eating (I guess they like worms), and Swainson’s (named for William Swainson, a 19th century English ornithologist).
I’ve left my favorites for last. Another 19th century ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, named the jaunty black-capped Wilson’s fellow; the Northern Parula is a perky dollop of rainbow in the trees; a tribute to Anna Blackburne, an 18th Century botanist, the Blackburnian’s head is the brightest orange imaginable; the Magnolia (a firecracker of black, white, yellow and gray, with no predilection whatsoever for magnolia trees); the American Redstart (who flashes its orange-red wing and tail patches to scare up dinner); and the remarkably poorly-named Common Yellowthroat, who, yes, does have a yellow throat and may be fairly common, but what you notice first is his swashbuckling black mask! How about the Black-masked Warbler?
“Oh Millie, sorry, I looked at you! Ready to go home?”
For more information about New York City WILD! outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.