HEY! my little Yellowbird,
What you doing there?
Like a flashing sun-ray,
Dangling down the tall weeds
And the hollyhocks,
And the lordly sunflowers
Along the garden-walks.
Ho! my gallant Golden-bill,
Pecking ‘mongst the weeds,
You must have for breakfast
Won’t you tell a little fellow
What you have for tea?–
‘Spect a peck o’ yellow, mellow
Pippin on the tree
James Whitcomb Riley
Even if you’re not a birder the bright yellow birds of summer cause you to stop for a moment and marvel at their striking beauty. For me these are the American Goldfinch, Yellow Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat–not exactly rarities but nevertheless welcome summertime friends, each with a unique life story .
The American Goldfinch is distinct from the other two in that it is here year long, visiting the backyard feeder all winter and blending into the bleak winter background with its drab non-breeding plumage. It is the only finch having two molts, late winter and late summer, with the winter molt transforming the male into the golden boy of summer, ready for attracting a mate. The contrast between the yellow body, black and white barred wings, and black cap must impress the female crowd. The black cap is pulled forward over the forehead reminding me a jaunty Frenchman and his beret.
I remember this bird from childhood, living each summer next to a lightly wooded grassy field, prime habitat for goldfinch. It was the first bird I noticed with a distinct undulating, swooping flight pattern that made the ID possible from a distance. This must have been the early stirrings of a budding birder.
The Goldfinch is almost a total seed-eater which explains his stout bill and year-long residence in these parts, only leaving for warmer climes when the temperature dips below 0 degrees F. The diet also explains its late breeding and nesting schedule, waiting until mid-summer. It needs plenty of fresh seeds to feed the young, and has no urgent desire or need to strengthen for a long fall migration to the south. Relax, no hurry, enjoy the summer.
The all-seed diet also has a further selective advantage. The Brown Cowbird is a brood parasite, laying its eggs into the nests of other unsuspecting birds, often smaller birds with weaker and less aggressive chicks. The small finch chicks lose out initially to the cowbird, however the cowbird chicks are unable to survive for more than a few days on the total seed diet.
The other two yellow birds require a little more effort to see as they do not frequent the backyard feeder and are not seen here in the Chesapeake region year-round. They are members of the Parulidae family arriving here in mid-April and staying until fall. The Yellow Warbler shuns the black contrasts and goes for the all yellow-look, except for the small black eye and red streaks on the male’s breast. Ken Kaufman selected this bird for the cover of his “Field Guide to Birds of North America”. I’ve seen them around the willows and wet, low woodlands around the bay, but they breed throughout the US mainland and Canada, sparing only the deep south. By fall they have followed the insects to Central and South America.
The Yellow Warbler has another strategy to thwart the devious cowbirds. According to the Cornell website they have the ability to detect the larger cowbird eggs. They’re too heavy to roll out of the nest, but the warbler just builds another nest right on top of the first and lays more eggs. This piling on of nest-on-nest has been observed as many as 6 times at one site. Talk about persistence.
The Common Yellowthroat is the bird that first peaked my interest in birding 50 some years ago. While walking through the large field behind our summer cottage in the Finger Lakes district of New York, I saw this striking yellow bird with a black mask–something much different than the usual yard bird. Leafing through the Goldenbook of birds, I found it. It was a known entity and had a name. Others had already seen it, but not me. I wanted to head right back out there and see what else was waiting to be discovered.
The yellowthroat is also a insect-dependent migrator, breeding throughout most of the US and Canada and leaving for Mexico and Central America in the fall. It can be see year round in Florida and the deep south. It recognizes the black mask as another male foe and defends his nesting territory in the marshy and grassy bottomlands with vigor. This bird invariably pops up for a photo-op when hearing its call–just don’t overdue it.
My Maryland was put on the birding map when a Common Yellowthroat from here was one of the first New World birds delivered to the Old World and categorized by Linnaeus in 1766. I suspect he was as impressed as I was when first seeing this yellow bird of summer.