Some say the Yellow Warbler is our yellowest songbird. It may very well be true. Yellow Warblers are bright yellow from head to claw. When I say “bright,” I mean they may rival the sun itself in measurable lumens – although I must admit that really isn’t hard to do in the gray skies of our typical Junuary. A day-old corn muffin could rival the sun at this time of year. But I digress.
When a male Yellow Warbler shows up in his newly donned spring plumage, you can see his flash of sunshine from a quarter-mile away. Every square inch of him is yellow, except for a few black wing feathers, and some red breast streaks that look like rays at sunrise.
The ancient Egyptians often depicted the Aten – the sun god – as a disk emitting rays with little hands at the end of each ray. The hands patted the upraised faces of worshippers, blessing them with the gift of life. That’s what a Yellow Warbler is to me – a blessing of life itself. Seeing one always makes me happy.
Don’t get me wrong. We have other yellow birds at the Fill, of course, and I’m very fond of them, too. One of the brightest is our state bird, the American Goldfinch. But if you look closely at a goldfinch’s feathers, you can see that underneath the yellow lie white feathers, kind of like a guy wearing a lemon Armani shirt over a Jockey tee. The Yellow Warbler, by contrast, is yellow through and through.
Yellow Warblers come to the Fill during spring and fall migration. It’s rare for any to nest here, but I think we are hosting a nesting pair this year. I found a singing male in the willows near Southwest Pond this week, and I suspect he’s defending his mate’s nest by doing what warblers do best: singing.
This one, however, was not looking great. His yellow was worn and frayed. He was busy hunting for bugs and barely had time to toss off a snatch of song. He would hop onto one branch, sing a little, look for predators, hop to the next branch, do a quick preen, search for an insect, hop, sing. The poor thing looked exhausted.
I know intellectually he was probably just molting his feathers, and that’s why he was looking a little dull. I also know scientifically he was merely following his genetic imperative to breed. But to my eyes, he had worn himself wan, spending his life force in the service of his family. A shining example to us all.