A Prairie Warbler’s Song

Very late in the morning, near noon – an unseasonably hot, sunny day with a burning blue sky – a Prairie Warbler sang among the thickets of the old field just outside our neighborhood. Its husky, rising tzoo-tzoo-tzoo-tzoo-tzoo-tsee sounded like the piping of a fairy, hidden somewhere in the densest part of the weeds. It’s a subtle and elusive song, quiet and not showy, but it’s one of the loveliest and most expressive bird songs, capturing perfectly the spirit of the scratchy, scrappy, hopeful habitat in which it lives.

A Prairie Warbler is a small yellow bird with bright black streaks on its sides and less obvious rusty-orange streaks on its back. The crown and back are an olive shade, while the throat, breast and belly glow bright yellow. The face is yellow, with olive and almost black markings around the eye, and a dark streak through the eye.

It’s an active, colorful bird, fun to watch, known for often wagging or bobbing its tail. But – I didn’t see even a glimpse of this one singing in the field, though I listened and looked for several minutes. The singer stayed hidden somewhere deep in the shrubs and vines.

At home in scrubby old fields and pastures, abandoned orchards, and the edges of rough young, second-growth woods, a Prairie Warbler is a good example of the abundance of wildlife that can flourish in this kind of habitat – heavily used and abused land that doesn’t get much respect. But this is land in the early stages of succession and recovery, and many wildlife species like the Prairie Warbler depend on it.

Since about 1970, numbers of Prairie Warblers have declined, and it is considered a species of concern, largely because of habitat loss. Around our own neighborhood, ten years ago Prairie Warblers could be found during the breeding season in a large, nearby overgrown area of abandoned field and orchards, along with Field Sparrows, Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. When a new subdivision replaced the weeds, shrubs, cedars and small pines, the Prairie Warblers and Field Sparrows disappeared, and for the past several years I’ve only heard or seen them passing through in migration. Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks have become less and less common, too.

As this Prairie Warbler sang in the remaining undeveloped land that still runs along a ridge over a busy highway, a Brown Thrasher also was singing from a perch in a scrawny, vine-choked chinaberry tree. A White-eyed Vireo, Northern Mockingbird and Eastern Towhee sang, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee-spee, all just barely audible over the sound of constant traffic not far away.

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