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Townsend’s Warbler: A Dream of a Bird


Townsend’s Warbler: A Dream of a Bird

By Lisa Hug

“This is in fact, a very dream of a bird, and I count it rather the handsomest of our western species.” – William Leon Dawson, The Birds of California (1923)

We begin October with crisp, cool, sunny days. But, by the end of the month, the days are short and rain clouds darken the sky. We mentally prepare ourselves for the gloomy days of November. But wait, not everything is gloomy. One particularly bright bird descends from the northern latitudes of Canada and Alaska to brighten our winter days – the Townsend’s Warbler. This warbler is only about five inches long. But, the sight or a Townsend’s Warbler leaves us with a brilliant impression.

Townsend’s Warbler is named after the naturalist John Kirk Townsend. Townsend discovered this bird in Washington State, while he and fellow naturalist Thomas Nuttall were on a Pacific Northwest expedition with fur trappers in 1834. The birds he encountered were migrating north to their breeding grounds.

The male Townsend’s Warblers arrives on this chosen breeding territory ahead of the female in spring. As soon as he arrives on this site, he starts singing from perches on coniferous trees. He sings a specific song used to establish the boundaries of its territory. Other males recognize this song and they, in turn, sing this same type of song to establish their territorial boundaries. But, as soon as the female arrives, the male switches to a different, softer song, used to woo her. He will follow her around as she forages and even while she builds a nest, he will be singing this special sweet song. If another male tries to enter the territory, he will switch to the louder, more aggressive song (beautiful to our ears) to drive him off.

After the birds have raised their young for the season, they migrate south; many to California, others to Mexico and Central America. From September to early May, we can watch these birds glean insects form leaves and pine needles in the streamside and coniferous forests of the California Coast. Seeing these birds move from leaf to leaf, easily visible one second and obscured the next, is like watching a flickering ball of sunshine dance through the tree foliage.

If you have never been lucky enough to see a Townsend’s Warbler, you might try to lure them into your garden with peanut butter or suet. They sometimes need to supplement their high-protein diet with fat. This is especially true in very cold weather. Other places you may go to try to see a Townsend’s Warbler are Ragle Ranch Regional Park, Riverfront Regional Park, or Salt Point State Park. I encourage you to try and see this bird this winter, as this is indeed “a dream of a bird.”

Ragle Ranch Regional Park

Riverfront Regional Park

Salt Point State Park