Speaking of Nature: Wilson’s warbler sighting my first in a decade: The story of a bird named after the ‘Father Of American Ornithology’

The Wilson’s warbler is a gorgeous little bird that will only be in our area during the last two weeks of May.

The Wilson’s warbler is a gorgeous little bird that will only be in our area during the last two weeks of May. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Recorder

Published: 05-20-2024 6:01 AM

In 1794, a Scot named Alexander Wilson arrived in the newly-independent nation of the United States of America and got to the business of starting a new life for himself. He had been employed as a weaver back home and thought he could make a go of it in the New World, but there wasn’t much demand for this sort of work in Philadelphia. Strike one. Wilson’s Plan B was to work as a teacher, which might have been successful for him except for the slight problem that he was caught having an affair with a married woman. Swing and a miss, strike two!

Fortunately, Wilson had many skills to draw upon and, as it turns out, one of them was drawing. He was an outstanding illustrator and with some encouragement of another famous naturalist, named William Bartram, he directed his efforts toward the study of birds. This third attempt at a career is what ultimately made him one of the most famous ornithologists in American history and it is the only reason that anyone even knows his name today.

He was a contemporary of John James Audubon and it is possible that an encounter between the two men may have encouraged Audubon to get into the ornithology business as well. Both men ended up publishing extended collections of illustrations of North American birds and some argue that Wilson’s work was superior to that of Audubon’s, but very few people seem to be aware of Wilson today. He may have had the skill, but he lost the publicity contest.

Wilson’s contribution to the study of birds was so substantial that he was named the “Father Of American Ornithology” by George Ord, Jr., a famous American zoologist of Wilson’s time. His impact on the science of birds was so profound that five different species of birds (including the Wilson’s Warbler seen in today’s photo) were named in his honor. Furthermore, the Wilson Ornithological Society and its publication, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, also bear his name. He was a really big deal at the beginning of the 19th century.

But time passes, attitudes change, and the accomplishments and contributions of a life dedicated to the scientific study of birds seem far less important to the masses 200 years later. At present there is a movement afoot to strip Wilson’s name from all of the birds named in his honor. It looks as if there is no point in buying a new field guide to birds until these changes are made because the American Ornithologists Union is planning on stripping every human name from every bird, even Audubon’s.

For now, however, there is a chance for you to see a Wilson’s warbler (Cardellinapusilla) if you get outside in the next week or two. This is a beautiful little bird with a black cap on the top of its head. The rest of the body is a study of yellows. The face and breast are a gorgeous primary yellow, while the back and wings are a greenish-yellow. It is not a particularly difficult bird to spot, but it just isn’t in our area for long enough to get many chances to spot one.

Here in eastern North America, the Wilson’s warbler breeds in northern Maine and Canada. My brother, who lives up in Maine, might have a chance to see this bird throughout the summer, but here in Massachusetts we have the briefest of windows for a sighting. The birds pass through during the last two weeks of May and then they make their return trip to Mexico and Central America in the first two weeks of September. Bad weather, or a poorly-timed weekend can obliterate your chances of seeing this bird for an entire year. I haven’t laid eyes on one in over a decade.

The story of the Wilson’s warbler is typical of the entire group. Small, energetic little birds that rarely seem to sit still for even a moment, these birds are voracious eaters of insects. The one departure from the typical warbler model is the fact that they tend to build their nests on the ground. Completed in only five days, the nest will be filled with four to six white eggs that are decorated with brown spots. The female will do all of the incubation and brooding (for up to 24 days) while the male defends their territory. The male will help to feed the chicks once they hatch and continue to care for them after they fledge.

The Wilson’s warbler that posed for today’s photo was perched in the branches of a black cherry tree. You can see the flowers of the tree in the upper left corner of the photo. I am absolutely certain that these birds have visited my own yard every single year, but I have not been lucky enough to see one of them. You have to be in the right spot at the right time and that particular combination has eluded me thus far.

So, as always, I encourage you to get out and look around your yard any time you get the chance. Time passes so quickly and our busy lives can occupy so much of it that we often miss out on things that happen right outside our windows. It would be a shame to miss something as beautiful as a Wilson’s warbler passing through your yard on its way to Canada.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.