Pine Warblers special in Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Louisiana Ecrivisse

Everyone gets started birding someway. I came to birding late in life when trying to document how important working lands are to wildlife conservation. The first warbler I identified myself was Yellow-rumped Warbler, probably the most common winter warbler anyplace in the South! The second warbler was Pine Warbler, surely the most common warbler in our southern piney woods year round. So much for locating rare birds!

Warblers don't stick out like sore thumbs. They're small, songs can be plain and/or difficult for hearing challenged people like me to locate, and young birds and females are normally LBJs, Little Brown Jobs.

Breeding males are the warblers that "stick out". In the case of the Pine warbler breeding males are bright olive-green above with bright yellow throats and breasts. There is some streaking on the breast.

There is a pair of prominent white wing bars on the bluish-gray wings. At other seasons, the colors are much duller. Females are very plain and when present, yellow throats and breasts are very subdued.

The world renowned bird artist John James Audubon referred to the Pine Warbler as the "Pine Creeping Warbler". This name well describes the bird's behavior as it searches pines for adult and larval insects and spiders. They seem always in motion investigating clusters of pine needles, cones, branches and trunks. In winter, it is common to find them feeding on the ground in mixed flocks of Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Most warbler species leave North America in the fall to winter in Central and South America. Their normal food resource is invertebrate animals especially insects, insect larvae, spiders, etc. and these animals are inactive in winter. Pine Warblers, however, do eat seeds, especially pine seeds. Those that breed in northern areas move south but stay in southern piney woods for the winter joining their southern cousins.

There are morphological changes associated with Pine Warbler diet. As most folks know, birds that eat hard materials have larger, more muscular gizzards than those that don't. In the case of Pine Warblers, those eating seeds have much more robust gizzards than those that are eating soft animals.

Pine Warblers nest in conifers, especially pines. Nests are located high up in trees. The "song" is long trill on one pitch so the term "warbler" simply doesn't apply to this species. The call is described as a "sweet" chip. Despite my poor hearing, I can hear both the song and chip. Sort of wonder what they sound like to someone who has good hearing!?

I recall first finding Pine Warblers one spring in Cooter's Bog north of Pitkin, Louisiana in west central Louisiana. I could hear the trill in the very tall pines but couldn't find the source. It took me at least 15 minutes before I finally saw the sources of the trills on pine limbs, both dapper males and plain females.

Want to stump a birder with an identification issue? Look carefully in deciduous woods for Pine Warblers in the winter. At that time of year, Pine Warbles are apt to be found just about anywhere and not just in piney woods. Because Pine Warblers aren't expected there, it may take the birder a bit of time to realize the bird is a wayward Pine Warbler.