Townsend’s Warbler

Townsend’s Warbler

Text and photos by Dan Gleason, © 2009

Townsend's Warbler at suet

Townsend’s Warblers are everywhere in our city and region in record high numbers as I write (January, 2006). The Eugene Christmas Bird Count on January 1, 2006, reported a record high of 141 Townsend’s Warblers! (The previous record was 93 in 1990 and the average is 27.) These birds are being seen throughout western Oregon.

This is a gorgeous, interesting but poorly understood species. The heads of both male and female have broad alternating stripes of rich black and yellow. The male has a black throat and the female has a light-colored throat. They are seldom seen by the casual birder, as these birds spend most of their time high in the branches of coniferous trees. They build their nests in the topmost branches of coniferous trees in the Cascades. During the winter, they come to lower elevations and are found here in the Willamette Valley. This year, however, they are very numerous and rather easy to attract.

The easiest way to attract them is with a hanging suet feeder, as this food is irresistible for many birds this time of year. Don’t be concerned with whether the suet you buy has embedded seeds, fruits or insects—it really doesn’t matter— the birds are interested in the fat. Fat provides a rich source of easily-used fuel, that is stored before long migration journeys and is one of the best sources of energy during winter months. Living on a diet of fat may not be a good thing for most humans but it’s a perfect food for many birds. Unlike humans, birds do not store fat around the heart or build it up within their blood vessels, and most is burned up within 24 hours to help keep the bird warm and provide nutrition.

male Townsend's Warbler, winter 2006

Warblers are primarily insect-eating birds, so why are Townsend’s Warblers still here in the winter? Actually, there are still many insects to be found if you know where to look. Most actively flying insects are not present as adults during the winter so most insect-eating birds typically do migrate to southern environments during the winter. But, that also means competition is thus reduced for the Townsend’s Warbler that gleans insects from the surfaces of evergreen leaves, twigs or even on the ground. If you provide suet, then they have to spend less time searching for other energy sources, although they do still seek insects as a source of protein.

Here’s another interesting fact about these birds. I said that Townsend’s Warblers breed in the Cascades, but the birds visiting the Willamette Valley in the winter are most likely not from Oregon forests but from the Queen Charlotte Islands! It turns out that those birds have slightly shorter wings and do not fly long distances, so they spend the winter along the Pacific coast. The populations that breed in our mountains and further north in the mountains of British Columbia have longer wings (you could only see this if you had the birds side-by-side and could measure with a ruler) and are able to migrate longer distances, spending their winter in southwestern Texas and on into Mexico!

So while you are looking for these gorgeous warblers, and musing about birds’ wanderings, don’t forget to look for other natural wonders that are maybe only an arm’s length away. Then, join me here each month as I share with you some of the joys that I have found and how you can experience these for yourself.

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