by Alexandra Forsythe

I love this photo, mostly because of the memories and emotions that accompany it. This little Chestnut-sided was one of the happiest birds I’ve encountered. It was early morning and I had just finished my chores. I decided to celebrate and reward myself with a quick walk around the yard before diving into my textbooks. The weather was perfect. The sun was shining brightly, and there was a slight breeze. I soon found that I was not the only one celebrating. In front of me, this warbler seemed to be dancing in celebration, not even stopping for a bite to eat. His bright eyes and happy demeanor brightened my day more than the sunshine. We celebrated together for a while, reveling in the perfect day. He made me smile from ear to ear then, and I still smile every time I look at his photo.

When gathering together photos to use for Alexandra’s Outreach (our series of programs for Amish, public and private schools at Limberlost State Historic Site), this was the first photo I chose. This little bird deserved to be admired for his wonderful attitude, and I hoped he would bring the students joy. He has. The children enjoy hearing about him and learning about the many ways he and our other feathered friends help us. After the program, most of the children want to learn more about the ways they can help birds and their habitats. I can think of no better tribute to the little bird that outshone the sun!

We are fortunate to see Chestnut-sided Warblers in Indiana. It is rumored that they were rarely seen during the lifetime of John James Audubon; people believe that Mr. Audubon only saw one once.

For your best chance of spotting the Chestnut-sided, look for them in overgrown shrubs and bushes at the edge of a woods. To determine when to start searching for them in your area, you can use this animated map that tracks the Chestnut-sided Warbler’s movements: You’ll note that their migration patterns differ in spring and fall. In the spring, they approach from Texas. When they head south, they travel further east, hugging the coastline into Florida.

The Chestnut-sided has other interesting behaviors, as well. They have two styles of song: accented-ending and nonaccented-ending. According to a study done by the University of Massachusetts (“Geographic variation of song form within and among Chestnut-sided Warbler populations”, Byers 1996) the type of song depends on the bird’s location and mated status.  Accented-ending songs are used when the male is stationary, securely within his own territory or when interacting with females. The unaccented song is used when the bird is near the border of the territory, near other males, or when the bird is in motion. Of course, males singing only unaccented songs had difficulty attracting mates.

Additional interesting behaviors are displayed during courtship. In December of 1965, the Wilson Bulletin discussed the results of a research project that studied the courtship behavior and territorial defense of Chestnut-sided Warblers compared to that of Redstarts, Yellow Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers (“Comparative ethology of the Chestnut-sided Warbler, Yellow Warbler and American Redstart”, Ficken 1965). There were several differences in behavior among the species, and the Chestnut-sided particularly stood out. While the other warblers had frequent territorial disputes, male Chestnut-sided Warblers were more friendly and sociable. They were observed feeding closely together – as little as ten feet apart – even while establishing territories in the spring. When a territorial dispute did occur, their actions were very different from those of the other warblers. While the other warblers had an intense, ritualized pattern of behavior involving circling, chasing, displaying and sleeked postures to chase away opponents, Chestnut-sided Warblers seemed to be more civilized. The male that was defending the territory rarely initiated a chase. Instead, the invader would realize he had trespassed and voluntarily fly away, while the original owner pursued the trespasser only to the spot where the invader had been perched. It’s as if the owner of the territory politely told the invader that he was sitting in his chair, the invader apologized and vacated the seat, and the owner simply reclaimed his chair.

I must say that the results of the study didn’t surprise me. Chestnut-sided Warblers always seem cheerful, so their civility even when defending their territory fits their happy-go-lucky attitude.

On your next perfect day, head outside and celebrate with a Chestnut-sided Warbler. You’ll be glad you did!


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