ATHENS, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — In the Gulf Coast, April is the peak time for millions of migratory songbirds, raptors, and shorebirds to return from Central and/or South America.
Birders of all types dream of coastal “fall-outs,” when strong winds from the north force vast numbers of birds migrating from the south to ditch into coastal wood-lots. We dream of hearing the woods filled with singing thrushes and warblers.
Every birder’s fancy turns to spring; some also turn to Claritin.
To choose April’s bird of the month, Louisiana Ornithological Society’s Facebook page members. And with their input, this month’s selection is the Hooded Warbler, Setophaga citrina.
Picture a bright, all-yellow bird wearing a black balaclava, and then you can easily
imagine the adult male Hooded Warbler. And thanks to Louisiana bird photographer Rickey Aizen, you have a great illustration of this guy.
The adult female Hooded Warbler is very similar to the male, but she has a much less extensive hood, along with a throat of all yellow with no black at all.
Both sexes have white outer tail feathers, and when they display or get fussy, they flare them, which is the Hooded Warbler version of either a Marvin Gaye song or an angry face emoji, depending on the situation.
Although undeniably beautiful, Hooded Warblers usually stay concealed in low, thick vegetation
and aren’t often seen clearly by humans. But they are very abundant in the region.
Learning the Hooded Warbler’s song is vital to understanding how many are hiding in the woods, and if you drive through mixed, open woods with a dense understory of shrubs, you can detect dozens of these birds.
North American warblers are known for their bright colors and beautiful melodic songs, and they sing frequently.
Like some other species, Warblers have a specialized “dawn song” or “alternate song” that is a bit more complex than their usual song. Warbler songs are not only complex musically, but they can also be socially complex, as well.
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s birdsoftheworld.org, adult male Hooded Warblers return to the exact locations each year to breed, nest, and establish territory. This practice is known as “site fidelity” and is a common strategy of many migratory bird species. The Hooded Warblers also learn the songs of their neighboring Hooded Warblers, which also return to the same spots.
Now, to us, these songs sound the same.
So to create a human equivalent, it would be like you learning your neighbors’ voices so that if you hear the unfamiliar voice of a stranger in the neighborhood, you’d be quickly aware of a possible threat. This way, the males don’t have to spend so much energy defending their nesting territories. They hear another male singing nearby and think, “Oh, that’s just Frank singing Van Halen songs again.”
So, yes, Warblers are pretty. And, yes, they sing more beautifully than my karaoke version of “Sweet Caroline.” But another important reason to focus on the Hooded Warbler this month is to
spread awareness of Warbler land conservation and management.
Hooded Warblers and dozens of other species rely heavily on coastal chénier (pronounced “shin EARS”) during spring and fall migration.
A chénier is an underground mountain of salt, the top of which nears the soil surface. When a chénier lies under a marsh or the near the coast, it creates a dry, more stable land area. You can spot them easily in south Louisiana because you’ll find small stretches of dry land with Live Oaks and houses, but it’s all surrounded by marsh.
Well, this forested, drier area sits on top of the chénier because it can’t develop in a
Ever been to Avery Island? It’s a chénier.
And all those oak trees and saltbush shrubs on chénier create the only reliable wood lots for birds when they reach or depart from the coast. If we don’t protect these areas, these birds will disappear.
Hooded Warblers are neotropical migrants who spend only half their time here and the other half in Central and/or South America. And so if we practice conservation with only half their range, do we only lose half the birds? No. We still lose them all.
Not to complicate things, but Hooded Warblers and several other neotropical migrants have
developed sexual segregation in their wintering ranges.
It may sound too good to be true to many married readers, but what I’m getting at is that the mated pairs of these birds live separately during the winter.
In the spring and summer, they mate and raise the kids. But for the rest of the year, they’re legally separated. The good news? Hooded Warblers only need “his” and “hers” towels half the year. The bad news? It’s up to us to protect the habitats where the males live and the habitats where the females live because it only takes a decline in one sex to lead to a decline in the species itself.
Your conservation efforts must be as diversified as your investment portfolio. Humans aren’t the only ones who worry about their nest eggs.
Dillon is a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org and is on the Louisiana Bird Records Committee. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Briarwood Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, teaches English Literature at Minden High School, and is the Minden High School Nature Club, founder. And a little birdie told KTAL that Dillon was recently awarded the Jimmy D. Long Louisiana Scholars’ College Distinguished Alumni Award at NSU.
Read more of John Dillon’s work and you’ll learn to recognize the birds of our area in no time!