Prairie warbler bears a name unrelated to bird’s habits and habitat

Photo by Noppadol Paothong/Missouri Department of Conservation • A prairie warbler forages in a cedar.

I took part in the annual Fall Bird Count conducted Saturday, Sept. 24, by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Some highlights of the count were migrating warblers that made for some exciting observations.

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.
The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler —are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees, their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the magnolia warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

While counting birds with Rob Armistead at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, as well as the linear walking trail along the linear trail in Elizabethton, we spotted and watched a striking and cooperative male prairie warbler. The prairie warbler is another warbler with a common name that doesn’t truly reflect any accuracy about the bird.

For instance, the prairie warbler is not affiliated with the vast plains and grasslands of the United States and Canada. According to the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website, Alexander Wilson named the prairie warbler in 1810 from specimens collected in Kentucky in a habitat that was then called a prairie. The habitat is now referred to as a “barrens,” which are a mixture of scrubby vegetation and trees. Prairies, fin the generally accepted sense, are grassland habitats.

According to the website All About Birds, some prairie warblers in Florida have become non-migratory and differ in some subtle ways from other prairie warblers, including being slightly larger.

Photo by U.S. F&WS • A prairie warbler perches on a branch amid thick cover.

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