I watched a male hooded warbler flitting among the branches of a forsythia shrub during a soft rainfall on Sept. 18. As I watched the small bird dash after unseen insects among the thicket formed by the forsythia branches, I marveled at the bird’s exquisite appearance. The gold and green feathers seemed to glow brightly in the dim light as a drizzle of rain wet both bird and leaves. The black hood and bib surrounding the male’s yellow face stood out by virtue of its stark contrast from the brighter feathers.
The appearance of the male bird provides this species with its common name. The female has an identical yellow-green coloration as the male, although she is slightly more drab. She lacks the black hood and bib, although older females may acquire some dark plumage on the head and around the face. Both sexes also show white tail feathers that they constantly flick as the move about in thick vegetation and shrubbery.
I know that every migrant passing through my yard is making its way south and it may be another five to six months before I again see any of my favorite songbirds. The hooded warbler will make itself at home in the forests of Mexico, as well as Belize, Costa Rica and other Central American nations. Most hooded warblers begin returning to their winter haunts as early as mid-September, but lingering individuals continue to entertain birders in the United States throughout October.
Like many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that make their home in the United States for the summer, the hooded warbler’s fall migration takes it across the vast open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing to the Yucatan and then dispersing from there to various points in Central America. That birds as small as hummingbirds and warblers make this incredible migration twice yearly is one of nature’s most phenomenal feats of endurance.
The warblers, also known as wood-warblers, are an exclusively New World family of birds, numbering approximately 116 species. About 50 of these species of warblers make their home in the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer, departing in the fall and returning to tropical wintering grounds. Some of them are extremely bright and colorful birds. As I’ve indicated in recent columns, however, some members of the family show more subdued plumages of tan, beige and brown. The hooded warbler would have to be included among the more brightly colored warblers.
Other colorful warblers that share similar tastes in range and habitat with the hooded warbler include the American redstart, black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler. None of the eastern warblers show any true red in their plumage, but red and pink warblers can be found south of the border. The pink-headed warbler, red warbler and red-faced warbler all make their home in Mexico and and Central America.
While some of the neotropical migrants that venture into North America boast even brighter kin in the tropics, we need not feel cheated with the warblers that make their home in the United States for half of the year. Some of their relatives are beautiful birds, including the white-faced whitestart, golden-bellied warbler, three-striped warbler and rose-breasted chat, but few can really hold a candle to their relatives that venture north and brighten the lives of the lucky humans fortunate enough to observe them during the summer nesting season or the seasonal migration journeys.
The hooded warbler has long been my favorite member of this family of interesting, energetic and engaging songbirds. Hooded warblers reside in the woodlands around my home, nesting and rearing young each year. I’ve never found a nest, but many years ago I watched a pair of hooded warblers fend off a song sparrow that ventured too close to one of their fledglings. Of course, the sparrow posed no realistic threat to the young warbler, but that didn’t make the conflict with the hooded warblers any less intense. The poor sparrow looked completely befuddled and uncertain about its offense. After the warblers drove the sparrow from the vicinity, I watched both parents deliver some food to the young bird.
Like most warblers, the hooded warbler feeds almost exclusively on small insects and arachnids. Some warblers will also feed on fruit, seeds and even nectar. The hooded warbler favors habitats featuring woodlands with an understory of smaller trees and shrubs, such as stands of willows or rhododendron thickets. Of course, a tangle of forsythia is enough to attract a visit from a migrating hooded warbler.
The warblers have become such popular songbirds that they warrant field guides devoted exclusively to their ranks. My long-time favorite guide is Warblers of the Americas by Jon Curson, David Quinn and David Beadle published in 1994. More recently, other guides have been published, including A Field Guide to Warblers of North America, a book in the Peterson Field Guide series, and the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. If you want a book to enlighten you about the magic of this family of birds, consider Chasing Warblers, a book by Bob and Vera Thornton about an adventure to find and photograph all 52 species of warblers that nest in the United States.
The warblers are, in short, an incredible family of birds. I’ve seen all but a handful of the species that reside for part of the year in the eastern United States. I still want to see a Connecticut warbler and cerulean warbler, as well as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. I’ll miss the warblers once fall migration has run its course. For those few months they are here, the warblers belong to us. They seem like “our” birds. They’re only on loan, though. Our winter birds bring their own favorites back to our yards, but I’ll be impatiently awaiting that flash of gold in the shadows of a rhododendron thicket next April.
To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.