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Townsend’s Warbler Serves as Seasonal Harbinger

By JOE EATON Special to the Planet
Friday December 26, 2003

It was 34 years ago last month, but the memory of my first Townsend’s warbler is still vivid: a tiny, brightly colored bird flitting through the trees in the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. I was fresh out of North Carolina and everything in the Bay Area—the birds, the trees, the weather, the politics, the music—was new and exciting. It was another “Welcome to California” moment. 

Since then, every winter has brought a few Townsend’s warblers into my life. Their arrival from the north has become a milepost of the changing seasons. One was searching for bugs in my next-door neighbor’s redwood a few weeks ago, and they used to frequent the Hollywood juniper below my front porch before we had it cut back (in self defense).  

There’s been another in the garden behind my mother’s nursing home. Unlike many winter-plumaged warblers, they’re easy to identify: Both sexes and all ages have a crisp yellow and green pattern, accented with black in adult males. 

Sunday before last I took part in another Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count at Point Reyes. Whatever else we find on that count, we’re pretty much assured of Townsend’s warbler. This year was no exception: My area had them in double digits. In fact, the only time I can recall not having Townsend’s was the infamous 2002 count, when gale force winds and torrential rains kept bird activity down and forced an early retreat by the few intrepid observers who had gone out anyway. 

(Townsend who? John Kirk Townsend was one of those 19th century naturalist-explorers, a young Philadelphia Quaker who went west in 1834: out to the Oregon Territory, where he met his warbler, and on to what were then called the Sandwich Islands. Fieldwork had its challenges in those days: a companion once consumed the whiskey Townsend had brought along as a preservative, and another roasted and ate an owl the naturalist had planned to skin and stuff. Besides the warbler, Townsend’s name was bestowed on a solitaire, a shearwater, a bunting, a chipmunk, a ground squirrel, a pocket gopher, a mole, a vole, a big-eared bat. He died in his forties, poisoned by exposure to the arsenic he used to protect museum specimens from insect damage.) 

Only a minority of the species spends the winter with us. Most make the longer flight from their breeding grounds in the northwestern old-growth forests to winter range in the mountain pinewoods of Mexico and Central America. Migration is risky business: there are predators, storms, navigation errors. Every year a few lost Townsend’s warblers show up on the East Coast. This makes the local birders happy, but the warblers usually succumb to the rigors of the season. 

The habitats at each end of the route are also at risk. Things don’t look good for old-growth right now. And further south, the forests of the Sierra Madre are being logged off and cleared for opium and marijuana plantations. The warblers that short-stop in Berkeley may be better off, despite cat predation and other urban hazards. 

Does it seem like a strange time to be worrying about warblers? It’s still a dangerous world, even if you’re not being shot at in Baghdad. In the name of homeland security, entities less benign than Santa Claus are making lists and checking them twice. And along with our civil liberties, 30 years’ worth of environmental legislation is under siege. Did anyone else notice when Congress exempted the military from the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts? (The Pentagon wanted relief from the burdens of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Superfund acts as well. Maybe next year…) 

So going out to count birds may look like the height of frivolity. The Christmas Count, which takes place over a two-week period throughout the Americas and the South Pacific, can be defended as citizen science at its best. It’s a crucial source of data on bird population trends. But for me—and lots of others, I suspect—it’s more than that, an important seasonal ritual in its own right. We need all the continuity we can get these days, whether it’s slogging through the wet woods after warblers or something more conventional. The season wouldn’t be the same without the call-and-response litany of the countdown dinner, the party leaders’ reports, the rumors of Something Really Good. 

As I contemplate the warblers of winter, I think about Pablo Neruda, who never lost his eye for a bird; about that great misanthrope Robinson Jeffers, taking a kind of austere comfort in his belief that the earth and its creatures would manage to survive us and our follies. And about George Orwell, writing in 1946 in praise of the common English toad: “How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t….The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.” 

So as Orwell took pleasure in his toads, I take mine in this season’s Townsend’s warblers, small flickers of light in a darkening world. 

Good luck to you little guys. Good luck to us all.