Bird Watcher's General Store

All About Black-and-White Warblers
05/20/11


Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the attached photo. This bird was in my yard today and Iím not sure what it is. It looks like a cross between a White-breasted Nuthatch and a House Wren. The bird is streaky, like a wren, but it acts like a nuthatch. Could it be a hybrid of some kind?

Ė Paul, Falmouth, MA

Not likely, Paul,

I donít think the bird in your photo is a hybrid. Although birds do occasionally interbreed, I doubt any bird could interbreed with a House Wren. Those psycho birds are way too active. Heck, Iím surprised they even stand still long enough to breed with each other, let alone a different species. Hybrids are rare in nature. And ever since gasoline prices have topped $4.00 a gallon, hybrids have become nearly impossible to find. How many Prius Finches have you seen at your feeder lately? See what I mean?

The bird in your photo is not a wren or a nuthatch or any combination of the two. Itís actually a warblerÖa Black and White Warbler to be exact. But you have good reason to be confused. This warbler fools lots of people because it really does act like a nuthatch. In fact, it often acts more like a nuthatch than many nuthatches do. Why does it act like a nuthatch? I think it has to do with the name. Many warblers have distinguished names - like Prothonotary, Blackburnian, Parula or Cerulean warblers but your bird was given the mundane name of ďblack and white.Ē How dull. Itís clear that the birdís namers totally phoned this one in. So, in order to set itself apart, the Black and White Warbler decided to behave like a completely different bird; i.e., a nuthatch. That will teach those lazy bird namers.

Warblers are a diverse group of small, active birds; the majority of them are colorful and tend to feed at the end of tree branches. Black and White Warblers, however, donít fit this profile. They are peculiar birdsÖthe black (and white) sheep of the warbler world. Instead of being colorful, they are black and white striped. And instead of feeding near the tips of branches, they spend their days racing up and down the trunks and thick branches of trees, hoping to find insects or insect eggs hidden in the bark.

These birds have excellent climbing skills and can easily walk up a tree, or down a tree, or walk sideways or upside down, and on occasion will actually moonwalk if no one is looking. This warbler has an extra-long bill, which it uses for prying out food, and an extra long back toe to help it cling to the tree. The long toe is great for clinging, but makes shoe shopping a real hassle.

Most Black and White Warblers spend the winter south of the U.S. border, living among the trees of tropical, shaded coffee farms. (Yea, for shade-grown coffee!) Clear-cut farming has been disastrous for birds, but the new shade-grown coffee plantations have not only helped the birds, they have helped the farmers, too. The warblers readily consume some weird creatures called ďcoffee berry borers,Ē which are a major agricultural pest. The farmers keep the trees for the birds and the birds chow down the nasty bugs for the farmers. Everyone wins (except the borers).

When spring rolls around the Black and White Warblers are one of the first warblers to return to North America. When they arrive they are amazingly active feeders (probably because they are all wired from eating too many caffeine-riddled coffee berry borers.) Most warblers canít return until the trees have started blooming, which attracts the insects to the outer branches. But since the black and whites mainly feed on tree trunks, they donít really care about the blooming foliage and thus are able to return before many of the other birds.

On the whole, warblers are a fairly wimpy family of birds. I mean, do you know anyone who has been beaten up by a warbler? Neither do I. Black and White Warblers are the exception. They will not only attack other warblers, but nuthatches and even chickadees as well. I donít really know for sure where all that aggression comes from, but once again it could have to do with their diet of caffeine-riddled coffee borers. I know eating them always has a crazy affect on me.

Hereís an interesting fact about Black and White Warblers that I didnít already know. Because they are constantly picking bugs off of tree bark, their scientific name roughly translates as ďmoss-pluckers.Ē How cool a name is that? If there isnít already a bluegrass band called the Moss Pluckers, there should.

Cape Cod is not really a hotbed of warbler activity. Most of the warblers we see are only passing through, but luckily Black and White Warblers are fairly common breeders here. They can be seen throughout the summer in both wooded lots and in our backyards. Just look for a small, striped warbler acting like a nuthatch, plucking off insects and beating up chickadees.

I know you thought Black and White Warblers were a cross between a nuthatch and wren, Paul, but I donít really see it. The nuthatch part makes sense, but wrens are brown, not black and white. I think this warbler looks more like a cross between a nuthatch and a zebra. Just donít ask me how this zebra/bird interbreeding was supposed to have taken place. I donít have the answers to everything.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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