We heard a “thud” at the window. We thought it might have been a bird hitting the window. We looked down to see a small, fiery orange warbler sprawled out on the ground. I ran out to see what I could do for the bird, if anything. Immediately I saw it was a male blackburnian warbler and it was still alive but stunned from hitting the window.
Blackburnian warblers are long-distance migrants who spend their winters in South America where they are found in mountain forests in the Andes. I thought, “oh no, this beautiful bird has just flown a few thousand miles from its winter home in South America to it nesting grounds in the Northwoods only to be taken out by a window!”
Glass becomes invisible, if it reflects images of trees, bushes, and sky. Birds fly directly into what appears to be their natural habitat. In fact, glass is one of the leading hazards to birds in flight, causing the deaths of as many as one billion birds each year! I was determined that the blackburnian warbler that hit our window was not going to become a “glass” statistic, if I could help it.
I picked up the warbler and held it in my hands to calm it down. Then I took it to our bird banding station where I have a couple cages for injured birds to recoup in darkness and quiet. I leave stressed out birds in a cage for about a half hour. Often, they recover and are ready to be released. I may even give them a little sugar water for energy.
When I went to see how the warbler was doing, it was feisty and ready to be released. Many birds do recover from hitting windows, but some don’t. Some perish from concussion complications even though the birds appear normal at time of release.
I removed the bird from its recovery cage and banded it with an official individually numbered bird band, so it could be identified by myself or someone who might come across the bird in the future. After banding, I released the warbler hoping it would be able to continue a normal life. It apparently did as it was spotted in our bird bath at least three times in a two-week period after it hit our window and was released. That was good news! Banding records show this species can live up to eight years, two months in the wild. That is remarkable for a small bird that migrates over long distances facing all kinds of hazards including windows.
So, what is a normal life of a blackburnian warbler in our neck of the woods? They usually arrive here in May or early June. They like big, tall, mature conifers like eastern hemlock, balsam fir, white spruce and white pine from where they sing their thin, high-pitched song with an ascending trill. If your hearing has lost high frequencies, you won’t hear it, but you may see it flitting around the tall conifer trees because of its fiery orange and black colors that are hard to miss; they kind of look like a dwarf oriole.
The blackburian warbler nests almost exclusively in conifers, usually quite high. I recall a photographer once invited me to view a nest in a blind high in a spruce tree. It was amazing to watch the nesting birds and it was even more amazing that I made it to the ground safely!
The more drab-colored females arrive about ten days after the male on the breeding grounds, but pair formation occurs rather quickly. But first the male must fend off rival males which he does so in a remarkable aerial ballet through the treetops. The female makes the nest taking up to six days to complete. Only the female broods the young, but both parents feed them. The blackburnian warbler is primarily insectivorous year-round, though it supplements its diet with fruits in winter and during migration. The young stay with the parents a few days after fledging and both parents tend to them. After successfully raising their brood, they only raise one brood a year, they head back to South America for the winter.
The blackburnian warbler will remain a common nester in our Northwoods, if we manage to keep some old growth conifer forests for them to live in while also conserving tropical forests in South America where they spend the winters.
Nicholls can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.