Tag Archives: Tennessee State Bird

Tennessee warbler visits Volunteer State only a few weeks each year


A Tennessee warbler as painted by early naturalist and painted John James Audubon. Because the first of these warblers was found in Tennessee, the bird was given a rather inappropriate name. At most, they spend a few weeks each year in the Volunteer State during migration.

This fall has been a good time to see warblers. Some of the more common ones I have noticed in the yard so far have included American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler and black-throated green warbler. Of course, these two species nest in the region during the summer.

One of fall’s first true migrants showed up on Sept. 17 when a rambunctious Tennessee warbler made its debut by chasing a male Northern cardinal from the blue spruce near the creek.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker.

Here’s some trivia for you should you ever find yourself competing on the game show “Jeopardy” and the category is “Warblers.” Four of our warblers — Kentucky Warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, Connecticut warbler and Tennessee warbler — bear common names that honor states. The Kentucky warbler and Tennessee warbler are named for the states where they were first found and described by Wilson in 1811. Neither the Tennessee warbler or Kentucky warbler are particularly affiliated with the states for which they were named. In fact, the Tennessee warbler passes through the Volunteer State only for a few weeks each year during spring and fall migration. Its closest breeding range is in the boreal forests of Michigan, and these warblers spend the winter in Mexico or farther south. Wilson got lucky and found his Tennessee warbler along the Cumberland River during migration.


Tennessee Warbler Photo by Paul Spark/Adobe Stock • The Tennessee warbler, while named for the Volunteer State, spends very little time within Tennessee. These warblers migrate through the region each spring and fall but nest much farther north in the boreal forests.

Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.

In almost 25 years of birding, I’ve never seen a Tennessee warbler during spring migration. I see many of these birds every autumn as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south. The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.

Some experts have floated the opinion that the Tennessee warbler should be named named “coffee warbler,” since wintering individuals are attracted to coffee plantations in Central America. According to the website, “Birds of North America,” recent studies demonstrate the importance of shade coffee plantations for Tennessee warblers during their time spent outside North America every winter. Other warblers, such as the black-throated blue warbler, are also closely associated with coffee plantations during the wintering season.

Some years find Tennessee warblers in great abundance, probably thanks to a feast of caterpillars infesting the spruce trees in the boreal forests where these warblers nest during the summer months. In years of famine when the caterpillars are less rampant in the forests the Tennessee warbler calls home, the birds raise fewer young, and the population grows less dramatically.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tennessee warblers are nectar thieves, punching holes in the sides of flowers to get nectar without contributing to the pollination process.

The Tennessee warbler is not strictly an eater of caterpillars and insects. This warbler has a bit of a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? They visit flowers to partake of nectar; however, the Tennessee warbler is not a good example of an avian pollinator. Tennessee warblers cheat by poking holes in the flower with their bills to steal the nectar without having to let the flower’s pollen accumulate on their bills and heads. The Tennessee warbler will also come to sugar water feeders put out on their wintering grounds to attract hummingbirds. The Tennessee warbler also supplements its diet with fruit and berries.

Here’s something that might also come in handy in a test of your knowledge of trivia some day: Not only is the Tennessee warbler named for the state, but the capital city of Nashville also has its name linked another member — the Nashville warbler — of the warbler clan. Once again, Wilson provided a rather inaccurate name, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville during a limited window of time each year.

While the briefly visiting Tennessee Warbler already pays tribute to our state with its common name, the Northern mockingbird was selected in 1933 as the official bird for Tennessee. This relative of the brown thrasher and gray catbird also serves as the state bird for Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. At my home, Northern mockingbirds are usually evident only during the winter months. I haven’t seen one at home so far this year. Gray catbirds were scarce this summer, but a pair of brown thrashers provided much entertainment as they raised young in my yard and gardens.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

For now, I think Tennesseans will probably stick with the mockingbird, rather than the Tennessee warbler, when it comes to offering one of our feathered friends the accolade of official state bird. That’s not to say we can’t enjoy observations of this warbler during its brief forays through the state. Don’t wait too long, though. The window of opportunity usually closes by mid-October.

Indomitable spirit allows Northern mockingbird to rule the roost


When John James Audubon painted this famous depiction of mockingbirds, he added an attacking rattlesnake to the scene to demonstrate the fearless nature of the mockingbird in defending its young.

We know some birds by their colorful feathers and others by a distinctive song. The Northern mockingbird pushes itself into our awareness not so much from brilliant plumage or a unique song — this bird actually copies the songs of other birds — but from an indomitable spirit all out of proportion to its size.

The mockingbird is a relatively common bird in most of the region, but it has always been rather scarce bird at my home. These birds don’t usually visit my yard and gardens outside of late fall and early winter. Close relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher, however, are usually fairly common birds in spring, summer and fall. I’ve even had thrashers visit during the winter months, as well as an unexpected December sighting of a catbird last year.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        The Northern mockingbird is the official state bird for five southern states, in part due to the bird’s assertive nature and spirited attitude.

The mockingbird, as well as the catbird and thrasher, belongs to a group of birds known as the “mimic thrushes.” The group provides a convenient umbrella for some related songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The varied repertoire of a mockingbird has always impressed human listeners. Laura C. Martin notes in her book, The Folklore of Birds, that the Choctaw Indians referred to the mockingbird as hushi balbaha, or “the bird that speaks a foreign language.”


The Galapagos Mockingbird documented by Charles Darwin.

Mockingbirds will break into song — their own and those of other birds — at almost any time of day or night. Both sexes sing. Biologists have speculated that there might not be a limit to the songs mockingbirds can learn to imitate, while other experts believe that the mockingbird’s mimicry might not quite be so extensive.

The Northern mockingbird is the only mockingbird found in North America, but Central America, South America and some of the Caribbean islands are also home to 16 other species of mockingbirds. Several endemic species of mockingbirds also inhabit some of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                  Hungry young mockingbirds await a tidbit from a parent.

Some of these other mockingbirds include brown-backed mockingbird, white-banded mockingbird, blue mockingbird, blue-and-white mockingbird, chalk-browed mockingbird, Bahama mockingbird and tropical mockingbird.

Anyone with much experience with mockingbirds would probably agree that these birds are bold, courageous and sometimes fiercely assertive. The aggression of the mockingbird was on full display when I once observed a pair of these birds attempting to defend a berry-laden holly tree from a voracious flock of cedar waxwings. Badly outnumbered, the two mockingbirds would successfully chase off several waxwings only for another dozen or so waxwings to take the place of their vanquished flock mates. Although the flock of waxwings consisted of about 80 individual birds, the mockingbird pair put up a valiant struggle tom defend the food represented by those holly berries.


Photo by Ken Thomas                                           A mockingbird keeps an alert watch on its surroundings.

Nesting mockingbirds are also very defensive of both their nest and young. They will attack anything that moves in the vicinity, including domestic cats and dogs, as well as humans. I recently observed a young red-tailed hawk perched in a tree. Crows and blue jays were screaming in protest at the large raptor’s presence, but the only bird to actually make contact with the hawk was a single mockingbird that swiped the back of the hawk’s head in a persuasive effort to convince the raptor to move along.

It’s that feisty attitude that impresses most people about mockingbirds. Even people who don’t like this bird — some consider it a bully — usually give grudging credit that the bird doesn’t lack in courage or spirit.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                          The mockingbird gets its name from the ability to mimic the songs of many other species of birds.


Perhaps that’s the reason five states — Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Arkansas and Mississippi — have made the mockingbird their official state bird. The southern makeup of these states reflects that the mockingbird has always been a bird of the southern United States even as it has expanded its range northward and westward.

The mockingbird was designated the state bird by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1933. The mockingbird’s designation had been decided earlier that same year in an election conducted by the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Florida and Texas both selected the mockingbird in 1927, Arkansas in 1929, and Mississippi in 1944. The mockingbird was once the official state bird of South Carolina but was replaced by the Carolina wren in 1948.

If the mockingbird had a slogan, it might be something like “don’t mess with me.” The mockingbird in your yard or garden considers the territory its own little kingdom. Intruders beware.