NEW WORLD WARBLERS Parulidae
"Spring is here, spring is here .... I think the loveliest time of the year is the spring , I do, don't you? Or course you do! And what makes spring so sweet for me? And makes every Sunday complete for me? Oh, the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon when we're pishing for warblers in the park...."
[with apologies to Tom Lehrer; sung to the tune of Poisoning Pigeons in the Park if you know the tune, smile and sing along....].

Few North American avian phenomena can compare with the arrival of New World warblers in the spring. Where I live in the West huge fallouts are rare, but still the arrival of a wide variety of colorful warblers, such as Townsend's Warbler (left) in the verdant foothills, always brighten the warming spring days. This species nests in coastal British Columbia & Washington, and winters in coastal California, in addition to its status as a migrant there. I think full black-throated males are about as pretty as any bird, and I delight in having quite a few winter in the Monterey Pines around my house all winter long. In spring, before they depart, their very high-pitched up-spiraling songs are a great addition to the warming spring days.

The warbler migration spectacle is most impressive in the East, where places from to Pt. Pelee, Ontario (where Ed Harper photographed the Blackburnian Warbler, below left) to Central Park, New York City, and from High Island, Texas to the Dry Tortugas, Florida (where Ed Harper shot the Cape May Warbler, below right), may come alive with hundreds of beautiful ornaments in the budding trees when warbler conditions are right.

There are 50 species of New World warblers regularly breeding in the continental United States and Canada, including two seriously endangered species [Golden-cheeked Warbler Dendroica chrysoparia and Kirtland's Warbler D. kirtlandii) and one oddity (Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens). There used to be one more Bachman's Warbler Vermivora bachmanni but it went extinct the late 20th century with the loss of its cane filled swampy bottomlands in the southeastern United States. There may have been none left by the time I started seriously birding in the early 1970s.
All North American warblers are migratory to some greater or lesser extent, which means than all are possible vagrants outside their normal range and migration routes. I live in California, and the search for vagrant warblers particularly vagrant eastern warblers in spring and fall migrations is the highlight of the birding year.

I spent part of one spring migration banding landbirds on Southeast Farallon I., some 27 miles west of San Francisco, California, and this photo shows two that we netted and banded at the same time: a female Northern Parula (the left-hand bird I'm holding) and a male Chestnut-sided Warbler. Such a colorful handful would be a treat even back East, but in California where they are rarities, the smiles get even broader.

Forty-six of the 49 breeding North American species have reached California; all but Kirtland's (breeds c. Michigan, winters in Bahamas), Colima Vermivora crissalis (breeds Big Bend vic., Texas, short-distance migrant to winter in Mexico), and Swainson's Limnothlypis swainsonii (breeds se. U.S., winters mostly Greater Antilles). I have personally seen 45 of these 46 (all but Golden-cheeked; there is but a single record from the Farallones in Sep 1971), and have a page of thumbnail photos of the California warblers that I have photographed or documented in the State. Two of my favorites are shown below: a fall Prothonotary Warbler (left) looking entirely out-of-place in a scraggly mesquite at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley National Park, and a fig-eating male Black-throated Blue Warbler (right) in a Carmel backyard. Among the eastern vagrant warblers in my own Pacific Grove backyard have been Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Hooded (3 different singing males!), and American Redstart.

Despite our parochial interest in the North American breeding species of New World warblers, often termed "parulids," this group likely arose in the Neotropics, and over half of the species reside primarily south of the United States and Canada. The parulids are nine-primaried, primarily insectivorous songbirds that are closely related to the Emberizids and such groups as tanagers (Thraupidae) or icterids (Icteridae). Biochemical evidence suggest they are a relatively recent radiation, and Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) lumped them all together in a single giant Emberizidae family, with the various groups assigned to subfamilies. Here, though, I follow the Handbook of the Birds of the World and the A.O.U. Check-list in considering the parulids as forming their own family.

This page is simply a brief introduction to the family, and it cannot hope to cover many of the interesting topics associated with this large and diverse group. Red-breasted Chat (right; this is a female; the male is much more colorful) is found locally only in west Mexico; As to the more tropical species, though, I do want to mention such oddities as the ground-creeping Wrenthrush Zeledonia coronata of humid mountains in Costa Rica and w. Panama, and the ant-following, swish-tailing Fan-tailed Warbler Euthlypis lachrymosa of Mexico to Nicaragua. An impressive set of species reside on Caribbean islands, and I've particularly savored the (successful) searches for such rare specialties as Elfin Woods Warbler Dendroica angelae in the mountains of Puerto Rico and the skulking and endangered Whistling Warbler Catharopeza bishopi of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles. Below are two more tropical parulids: St. Lucia Warbler, endemic to the island of St. Lucia (below left; a recent split from Adelaide's Warbler of Puerto Rico) and Collared Redstart from the cloud forests of Costa Rica and w. Panama (right).

The latter is among a dozen species of Myioborus redstarts. None actually have red in the tail (as does American Redstart in a different genus), and although there has been a move afoot for three decades to call them, more logically, "whitestarts," somehow this has never really picked up steam. Although I don't have illustrative photos, there are more than 20 species of parulids that are resident in South America, a goodly number in the relatively dull-plumaged genus Basileuterus, and a very good chunk of North America breeding species winter in that "bird continent." Indeed, since they spend half of their lives in South America, who's to say they are "North American" warblers anyway?
Nevertheless, it is North American warblers that I know best, and recently I have been working on trying to get better photos with a digital camera. This Yellow-rumped Warbler (right) was actually digiscoped, and came out remarkably well. It shows the characteristic yellow rump patch for which the bird is named. Locally, the colloquialism is "butter-butt," and that is how they are often pointed out in the field: "there's a butter-butt over there." Like many Dendroica warblers, they have tail spots on the inner web of the outer rectrices; these can be seen in this shot. This particular Yellow-rumped is of the eastern race, a group we call "Myrtle Warbler." It commonly winters throughout the United States, but in California tends to be restricted in winter to willow and cottonwoods groves. It used to be considered a separate species from western populations, which were known as "Audubon's Warbler." Myrtle has a white throat; Audubon's has a yellow throat. There is a narrow area of hybridization and integradation where the breeding ranges meet in British Columbia, but we almost never see hybrids in the field and the two taxa separate out distinctly in wintering habitats. I suspect they will be split again someday.

In the meantime, it still is impressive to watch their spring spring molt every year as they acquire full breeding plumage. This "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler was photographed with my new digital SLR camera in my backyard this past spring.

So now I've been trying for digital shots of all the warblers that pass through my California yard in migration. Some examples are Hermit Warbler (right; quite scarce locally) and the more regular migrants Orange-crowned Warbler (below left) and Wilson's Warbler (below right). Hermit Warbler, like many on this page, is a Dendroica warbler but Orange-crowned and Wilson's represent the genera Vermivora and Wilsonia, respectively.
Photos: The male Townsend's Warbler  Dendroica townsendi was at the Carmel River mouth, Monterey County, California, on 24 Sep 2005. W. Ed Harper photographed the Blackburnian Warbler D. fusca on 3 May 1993 at Pt. Pelee, and Ed also photographed the male Cape May Warbler D. tigrina was at Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Florida, in May 2002.  The handheld Northern Parula  Parula americana and Chestnut-sided Warbler D. pensylvanica was on S.E. Farallon I. on 20 June 1977 (Ron LeValley snapped this shot of me holding the birds with my camera). The imm. Prothonotary Warbler Protonotaria citrea was at Death Valley Nat'l Park, Inyo Co., California on 11 Oct 1997. The male Black-throated Blue Warbler D. caerulescens was eating figs in a Carmel backyard on 13 Nov 1994 in Monterey Co., California. The female Red-breasted Chat Granatellus venustus was at Concordia, Sinaloa, Mexico, on 24 Feb 1987. The male St. Lucia Warbler  D. delicata was on St. Lucia, Lesser Antilles, in March 2000. The Collared Redstart Myioborus torquatus was at Cerro Punta, Chiriqui, Panama, in Jan 1981. The "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler  D. coronata was photographed on 29 Jan 2005 in Monterey, California. The remaining warblers were in by backyard in Pacific Grove, California: he "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler  D. coronata auduboni was shot 16 Apr 2005; and the Hermit Warbler  D. occidentalis, Orange-crowned Warbler  Vermivora celata, and male Wilson's Warbler  Wilsonia pusilla were all photographed on 26 Apr 2005. All photos © 2003 Don Roberson, except the Blackburnian & Cape May Warblers © W. Ed Harper, used with permission; all rights reserved.
Bibliographic note

There are actually quite a few books that cover most of the New World warblers. Few include the entire family with its Neotropical and/or Caribbean representatives and therefore there are few actual "family books" per se. But those listed here cover all the basic North American breeding species and attempt, in general, to provide a family portrait:

Family book: Rating 
Curson, Jon, 1994. Warblers of the Americas: an Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

This is only true "family book" in that it covers the 116 species of Parulidae recognized by the author (including a couple recently extinct ones), and includes color plates (by David Quinn and David Beadle) of all the species. This effort strongly resembles a Pica Press family book with plates in one location with facing text, and the main text elsewhere. Like all these generic family books, it bogs down in detailed plumage descriptions which fail to answer the 'big picture' of how to separate the difficult ones. I owned this book for several years but became disillusioned with it, since it rarely had the answers to 'state-of-the-art' questions. The author was up on much of the literature, and did (for example), cite Pyle & Henderson's (1990) paper on identification of Oporornis, but inevitably it had to summarize those topics, and thus lost the fine details actually needed. In almost all situations, I found it necessary to go to the primary papers. On a more general level, the overview of the family was okay, and the plates adequate (but not enticing), and I eventually sold the book.
    The value of this book decreased significantly with the publication of Dunn & Garrett (1997), acknowledged experts on North American species. It didn't help that Warblers of the Americas was written and illustrated by British collaborators. No doubt they did a lot of research, but I never felt they knew American birds to trust what they said.
Family book: Rating 
Dunn, Jon, and Kimball Garrett. 1997. A Field Guide to the Warblers of North America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
This book covers only North American warblers (but includes Baja California and Mexican vagrants that have crossed the U.S. border); it is thus not a true "family" book. At 60 species is has just over half of the family. Yet that half is covered exceptionally well from the perspective of identification, distribution, subspecific variation, and migration. The authors, renowned experts in field identification, discuss the range of variation in each species, and identify the obvious and not so obvious pitfalls. At the moment, this book is definitive on most major i.d. topics, including a full discussion of voice. The authors give special attention to detailed information on ageing and sexing each warbler. I give it high marks in these areas.
    That having been said, the sections of behavior and habitat and other biological topics are short, and the main text suffers from a lack of citations. This is an identification and distribution guide, not a more generalized survey of all that is known about warblers. It is also an odd size for a family book, having field guide dimensions (rendering all the paintings and photos quite small) but being very thick. Surely no one will carry it in the field; it is presumably meant for the car. But I prefer my family books on shelves at home, and this odd small-and-thick shape is not conducive to easy use. The paintings (by Thomas Schultz and Cindy House) range from excellent to okay, and I appreciated the scattering of color photos throughout. Yet in many cases I still wanted better illustrations of particularly difficult points. The detailed range maps for the U.S. and Canada, though, are excellent.
Family book: Rating 
Harrison, Hal H. 1984. Wood Warblers' World. Simon & Schuster, New York.
In many respects, this is the opposite approach to presenting North American warblers (53 species here) from Dunn & Garrett (1997). This book's emphasis is on breeding biology, habitat, life history, and such matters, with only the briefest of remarks on identification, subspecific variation, or detailed distributional information. At the level of biology, the text is all-too-brief and the bibliography rather short, but it is entertainingly written. The style is anecdotal even when citing serious studies and we get the feeling that the author really enjoys warblers. He is inclined to opine on most anything, from why the name "Worm-eating Warbler" is a poor one to why campground locations in Perdenales State Park, Texas, are poor. But the book is packed with a lot of the author's photos mostly of warblers on the nest plus a variety of black-and-white habitat shots. These are evocative and in some cases quite wonderfully, recalling the fabulous series of wood-warbler nesting photos published by Eliot Porter.
Family book: Rating 
Griscom, L., and A. Sprunt, Jr., eds. 1957; rev ed. 1979. The Warblers of North America. Devin-Adair Co., New York.
This was the first major review of North American warblers. Now quite dated, it provided a mid-20th-century overview of distribution, migration, and life history, accompanied by paintings of John H. Dick and others. Some of the paintings were nice, and again some anecdotes remain poignant, but time has passed this one by.
There is yet another recent book, Douglas Morse's (1989) The American Warblers, that I have not seen. It has a comprehensive review of the behavior and ecology of wood-warblers, and comes highly recommended by Dunn & Garrett (1997). Although it apparently does not deal with identification, distribution, or vagrancy, it may be the best text on other topics.

Literature cited:

Pyle, P., and P. Henderson. 1990. On separating female and immature Oporornis in fall. Birding 22:222-229.

Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds, 2d ed. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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Page created 3-5 Mar 2003, revised 21 Oct 2005