Monday, May 20, 2013

What's in a Name?

Consider the yellow warbler, Dendroica petechia (oh…I’m sorry—the fickle fingered gene jockeys have decided that they are now Setophaga petechia—my bad--geesh!). “Sweet -sweet –sweet- sweeter than sweet!”  They were everywhere at the Biggest Week in American Birding singing that familiar song, flashing like little feathered flakes of sunshine in and out of the willows and low shrubs . They were in fact the first bird I saw through my binoculars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory Headquarters; kind of like a warbler welcoming committee!
The little birds hold the distinction of being the most widespread warbler species in North America, ranging from the Alaskan outback  south to breed across most of the lower 48.  No one will deny the attraction of a yellow warbler. A lemon-yellow living being splashed with streaks of chestnut catches the eye. Combine that  with a distinctive “don’t ignore me” song  and a cute face and you have a bird that begs to be appreciated.   But do we really appreciate it—or any of the birds we see? I mean, they were EVERYWHERE!  I noticed people largely ignoring them.  After all there were  rarer and sexier things to be had—ticked off the list to build the numbers.  

When an unusually cooperative mourning warbler made its way onto a vine-strewn and limb-fallen stage, hundreds were astounded that the desirable little grey-hooded skulker  seemed intent on actually being seen. Many of us waited for the show hoping for a glimpse.  I was among the awestruck and may have even drooled a bit as the bird wandered about, finally giving me the soak-em-up -brain-saturating looks I’d been wanting for years.
As throngs of us strolled along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, thousands of high-powered  (and very costly) magnifiers were aimed at the astounding assortment of warblers, vireos, thrushes , tanagers and others that somehow made their way across the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Lake Erie. The legions we watched had amazingly made it to be there through gauntlets of predators, bad weather  and in spite of  the challenge of all the changes that humans put before them –cell towers, skyscrapers and such.  I wondered how many folks were identifying WITH the birds they were seeing and not just simply identifying them.

But the mourning warbler, the yellow warbler—any of the neotropical migrants that we were all there to see should strike us all with awe beyond just the name. After all, each and every one of them that graced our collective magnified fields of view had  somehow survived all that nature and humanity had thrown  at  them over the course of a year and thousands of miles of migration.  Amazing!

Do you ever take the time to really watch a warbler, yellow or otherwise, throw back its little beaked head and belt out the story of its life?  Have you ever spied a scarlet tanager setting a tree aflame and warbling the lore of its wanderings?  Sure, the songs sound like clear-whistled phrases or “a robin with a sore throat” or however we want to describe them, but really the birds are telling stories. 

Each note is a declaration of that bird’s being.  Yes, there is territorial imperative and the advertisement for mates but I like to think that somewhere in that avian brain is some memory of the migration it has enduring. Perhaps there’s some pronouncement of all the hazards dodged along the way—a particularly persistent sharp-shinned hawk in the coastal scrub of some barrier Island; a cold rainy headwind; the wetland  that used to be; the mountain of windows that reflected the night sky perfectly but repelled some flock mates to fly no longer. Maybe all of that is somewhere, somehow wrapped up in that bird’s song we watch.

And so as I watch now, whether yellow’s at the Biggest Week with thousands of my fellow birders, or by my lonesome with Prothonotaries  in a blackwater swamp at Beidler Forest, I cannot simply and care-less-ly  just “identify” a bird anymore—by whatever name some taxonomist gives it.  I owe it to the birds I watch  to connect the story of its life to the privilege it gives me of seeing it.  The stories  of survival are worth considering and should move us to do more than just watch.  They should connect us. Each one should push is to admire and actively  conserve with gratitude in the heart for each and every feathered thing.

So the next time you're out don't just I.D. the birds. Identify WITH the birds.

Have Fun Birdin' Y'all!


  1. wow - yellow birds, red birds, in a black swamp; sweeter than sweet like you say Drew; lovely post

  2. Wonderful post, so beautifully expressed!