Home & Garden Columns

Wild Neighbors: Birds in Winter: Charles Keeler and the Summer Warbler

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday October 16, 2007

If you want to look back at changes in Berkeley’s bird life over the last century, the work of Charles Augustus Keeler provides a convenient benchmark. I have a battered library-discard copy of his Bird Notes Afield, the second edition, published in 1907. Keeler notes in a preface that the bird collection of the California Academy of Sciences, where he did his research, had been a casualty of the San Francisco quake and fire the year before. 

Keeler is an obscure figure today, known primarily to architecture buffs. He gave Bernard Maybeck his first commission, and the resulting Keeler Cottage still stands on Highland Place in North Berkeley. Around the turn of the last century, though, Charles Keeler was prominent in Bay Area literary and artistic circles. 

Born in Milwaukee, he moved here with his family in 1887, attended UC (but didn’t graduate), and landed a job with the Academy. But he saw himself as more poet than scientist, publishing several volumes of poems and plays. A Simple Home (1904) made him a leading voice of the Arts and Crafts movement. 

A friend of John Muir and early member of the Sierra Club, Keeler also founded and presided over the Hillside Club, ran the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, and organized the Baha’i-influenced First Berkeley Cosmic Society. He had met Muir on the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska, whose complement also included the naturalist John Burroughs, the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and the photographer Edward S. Curtis. 

However, this is about Keeler as a nature writer. His work requires a bit of translation, because so many of the common names of Bay Area birds have changed since the 1900s. Bird Notes Afield is full of varied robins (now varied thrushes), pileolated warblers (Wilson’s), russet-backed thrushes (Swainson’s), and the like.  

Like many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t afraid to anthropomorphize his subjects. Of the varied thrush, he wrote: 

“Some deep, brooding sorrow seems to have fallen upon it to quench its song and leave it meditative and lonely.” The junco, in contrast, is “exceptionally bright and cheerful,” the house wren is “jolly,” and the western scrub-jay is “happy-go-lucky.” But Keeler doesn’t seem to have gone as far as his contemporaries who were lambasted as “nature fakers” by Theodore Roosevelt. 

What interests me most, though, is which birds he considered common, and which he didn’t mention at all. Keeler’s Berkeley had no crows, no ravens, no chestnut-backed chickadees, no Nuttall’s woodpeckers. He treats western bluebirds as frequent winter visitors, and lark-finches (lark sparrows) as routine spring nesters. 

Then there’s this: “The lovely little summer warbler … with its fine gold plumage faintly streaked on the breast with reddish brown, and its vivacious crescendo song, is a familiar summer resident here”—“here” meaning Berkeley. That would be the yellow warbler. And it seems to have remained a familiar urban or suburban bird at least into the 1920s: Joseph Grinnell and Margaret Wythe, in their 1927 Directory to the Bird-life of the San Francisco Bay Region, call it a “common summer resident throughout the region” that “often makes its home in orchards and shade trees in city parks and gardens.” 

That has definitely changed. I’m accustomed to seeing yellow warblers in my yard during migration, but over a couple of decades in Berkeley I’ve never detected a singing male during the breeding season, or any other indicator of nesting. This species prefers riparian habitat, and there’s not a lot of that left in the Bay Area. 

It has also suffered from nest parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird, a Great Plains bird that first showed up here around the 1920s. Like cuckoos, cowbirds dump their eggs in the nests of hosts, who rear the alien hatchling as if it were their own. In populations that co-evolved with cowbirds, yellow warblers either desert the parasitized nest or roof over the cowbird egg (along with any of their own) and start a new clutch. Naïve California warblers have no such instinctive defenses.  

But it seems the warblers are still around, in small numbers. The Contra Costa Breeding Bird Atlas, online at www.flyingemu.com/ccosta, shows nesting confirmed in two survey blocks just north and east of Berkeley, and possible in two others in the East Bay Hills. Elsewhere around the Bay, yellow warblers are uncommon nesters in Marin County and appear to be holding their own in Sonoma and Napa. 

Although there have been other losses since Keeler’s time, there have also been gains. Grinnell and Wythe were pessimistic: “On the whole, it looks as though the total number of species in the Bay region at the present time were undergoing decided reduction, due in major part to the elimination of habitats of wide diversity or of productive kinds.” What actually happened between 1927 and 2007 would have surprised them. More next time.  


Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Ron Sullivan’s “Green Neighbors” column on East Bay trees.