I miss Dendroica…

Nature Bummin’ with MCHT Steward Kirk Gentalen     

Nowadays, it seems like everyone is busy processing changes in the world. Changes in perspective, changes in knowledge and understanding—and not just changes happening in real time, but changes from the past, as well as changes that have implications for the future. Processing like this brings up questions of where we are at, where we are going, and where have we been. And with covid-19 in the mix processing change becomes more complex than ever. I know—deep, right? Vague may be a better word for it I would say.



There are some changes that feel natural and right—like progress if you will. Other changes are harder accept but still achievable, and then there are still some changes that will probably never make sense. Take the history of the bird genus Dendroica, and the current lack of it!

Now, this is admittedly not the biggest issue in the world—probably not even a top 10 issue for most humans. But it just so happens to be something that struck-a-cord (not a big fan of that saying) with me personally over the last few years. You see Dendroica was not just a historic genus of wood warblers in North America—it was the genus of wood warblers for some (me specifically). Let’s break it down a little…

Warblers sum up so many wonderful things.

Wood warblers are in the family Parulidae—remember that old ‘‘King Phillip Comes Over For Guinness Stout’’ thing to learn Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species? It was an effort to make the whole Linnaean/Latin thing fun. Anyway, Parulidae is a glorious family—currently listed as having 109 species world-wide with 57 species found in the US and Canada. ‘‘World-wide’’ in this case is the western hemisphere—they are American (North, South, and Central) through and through. And man do they own the North American woods.

We appreciate so much about the Wood-Warblers as they represent many things we (the royal ‘‘we’’) love about birds and nature in general. As a family, they are the epitome of diversity and celebrations.  Most warbler species migrate, and some migrate far—Blackpoll warblers are famous for their direct, non-stop ‘‘over ocean’’ route from Nova Scotia to wintering grounds in South America. But other species—Yellow-rumped Warbler—sticks around all winter (some on Lane’s Island off Vinalhaven) by diversifying their diet to include wax on berries (and the berries themselves). And whala—bayberry is magically a winter food source. Some Warblers live in the forest canopy (Cape May, Bay-breasted), some nest in wetlands (Common Yellowthroat) and some nest on the ground (Ovenbird). Some warblers are secretive (Connecticut) and others are… whatever the opposite of secretive is (Yellow Warbler). ‘‘Loud and attention-needing’’ maybe?

Oh, Parulidae warblers add so much flash to so many habitats in North America, and at times can be so active that it feels like ‘‘flash looks’’ are all you are getting!

chestnut sided warbler

chestnut sided warbler

Aesthetically speaking, the array of patterns and colors within the wood-warbler family is quite varied and at times differences could possibly be referred to as drastic. The subtle blue of the Black-throated Blue, the yellow sub ocular bordered by black of the Prairie, and the fire orange throat of the Blackburnian (aka “Flame Throat’’) are highlights of any nature observation session or season, and are so different from each other. I didn’t even mention the iridescent red on a male Nashville Warbler’s cap—which can only be seen with the best of viewings! Oh, Parulidae warblers add so much flash to so many habitats in North America, and at times can be so active that it feels like “flash looks’’ are all you are getting! Be careful of “warbler neck’’ and “warbler back’’ when watching warblers, both are medical conditions I have dealt with over the years.

The diversity in wood-warbler appearances is impressively (judgment) matched by the variety of cascading warbler songs. Hear a high-buzzy, ‘‘zee, zee, zee-zoo zee?’’ Well, it’s clearly a Black-throated Green. Booming ‘‘Tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’’ is the Ovenbird. A Northern Parula has a rising, ‘‘ohhhhhhhhhh’’, followed by a sudden, sharp drop best represented by ‘‘SHOOT!’’. Put ‘em together and they make, ‘‘ohhhhhhhhhhhh SHOOT!’’. Familiarizing yourself with warbler songs is a great way to locate, learn, and observe warblers, and (once again) sometimes the song is all you get!

During post-breeding (some call it Fall) migration wood-warblers aren’t singing, and their colorations are subdued and bland (judgment, but largely true). Warblers will molt their body feathers twice a year, and somehow their bodies know (through the magic of hormones no doubt) to produce alternating looking/colored feathers out of the same feather ducts. Bright in spring, dull to completely different in the fall and this goes on for years.  Suddenly warbler species that looked very different in spring now find themselves looking downright similar. This is why Roger Tory Peterson coined the term ‘‘confusing fall warblers’’, when writing his break-through bird guide, and RTP dedicated a few pages of drawings to similar-looking fall warbler plumages. And yet, this confusion is part of the warbler fun. Diversity between seasons! Differing seasonal diversity between species! So cool.

While on the diversity topic, let’s not forget about the spectrum of warbler niches—their ‘‘jobs’’ in the woods in the woods and the competition between warbler species and species of other bird families. For instance, an American redstart’s main competitor for habitat and niche is said to be the Least Flycatcher, and a Northern Waterthrush appears, from this nature observer’s view, to fill in a roll similar to Dippers out west. But wait, there’s more….

What more, convergent evolution has been so strong with some warbler species that in the past they were placed in the wrong family of birds!

A rundown of wood warbler niches eventually leads to the concept of ‘‘convergent evolution’’. ‘‘Convergent evolution’’ being the process where ‘‘distantly related organisms independently evolve similar traits to adapt to similar necessities’’. Within Parulidae this is more than concept, it is ‘‘in the flesh’’, which we love. A silhouetted Black-and-white warbler could easily be mistaken with a nuthatch, as they match each other in shape (short tail feathers matched with a stout body) and behavior (clinging to tree trunks and branches). This match is so great that it’s the phrase ‘‘like a nuthatch’’ is a commonly used in field guides when describing a Black-and-white warbler. Classic example of a shared niche resulting in similar traits and behaviors, and we love that. We really do.

black and white warbler

black and white warbler

What more, convergent evolution has been so prevalent in some warbler species that in the past they were placed in the wrong family of birds! The Ovenbird, and the two Waterthrush species historically were thought to be closely related to the family of songbirds known as Thrushes (Turdidae). And it’s true, these species look and behave more like thrushes than warblers (to generalize), so it’s easy to see where the confusion came from. They live in the same ‘‘world’’ as thrushes—active on the forest floor—and accordingly have adapted similar traits over time. And still for some, the confusion continues.

I recently posted some Ovenbird photos on ‘‘the instagram’’ (handle: ‘‘baldfulmar’’ by the way) with the hashtag #warblers, only to have people reply by telling me how much they love thrushes. Always sweet to hear, and let’s face it—thrushes are cool—I dig ‘em. But Ovenbirds are not Thrushes. There is way more going on with warblers than meets the eye.

Oh where, oh where have my Dendrioca gone?

The confusion associated with North American wood warblers—both historic and current—is part of their appeal. However, more recent and thorough studies have resulted in increased knowledge and understanding of Parulidae, and the confusion shifts to a celebration of diversity. This increased knowledge brings a need to re-think things and re-learn things “correctly” as past knowledge may not have been so correct. While progress in knowledge is wonderful, the re-learning after forced forgetting gets a little tiresome… if I am being honest here.

I remember back in the early 90s when I was just getting into birds. I would hear observers use the name “Marsh Hawk” for the raptor species I learned as the “Northern Harrier.” (NB note: common names in birds are accepted on the same level of Linnaeus Latin—there is one official common name for each species).  “Northern Harrier” used to be known as “Marsh Hawk,” but that was officially changed in the 80s. It never bothered me when old school folks called them “Marsh Hawk”, and not sure why it should have. But there was always a voice in my head that said, “but isn’t it Northern Harrier now?” I didn’t get why anyone wouldn’t want to be up to speed with bird evolution, relations, and understanding as much as they could. Oh, how foolish I was.

Roger Tory Peterson is a legend

Everyone has a favorite bird field guide, and while I started using the break-through work of Roger Tory Peterson and his bird guide, I quickly found that the “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America” was the one that worked for me. Something just clicked with me and the “Natty Geo”—I find it easy to use—which is all you can ask for from a guide really. Over the years I have had several copies of different editions as the guides tend to get brutalized and destroyed from time in field. They are “field” guides after all, supposed to be in the field regardless of conditions.  

With each new field guide edition comes updated drawings and facts, and it was always fun catch up to speed a little with changes in our understanding.  And then the 7th edition of Natty Geo was published, and this edition blew my mind.

First off, the arrangement and sequence of bird orders and families within the guide had changed drastically. Loons weren’t in the front of the book anymore, and Vireos were no longer next to the warblers (mind-blowing). The way Natty Geo, and most guides, arranges bird groups is by “evolutionary relationships” and these changes were explained in the book’s introduction.

“Recent advances in molecular systematics, particularly through DNA sequencing, have revolutionized our understanding of the evolutionary relationships of the major lineages of birds.”

In other words—progress! A change in the book based on current advances in knowledge is wonderful! Sure, it may take me a little longer to find specific species in the guide—I knew the old order of things like the back of my hand. But if that is my biggest complaint then things aren’t that bad. Which brings us back to the warblers.

It’s was exciting to see the changes in the understanding of wood-warbler relationships. Vermivora (my second favorite warbler genus) had split a bit. Tennessee, Orange-crowned and Nashville warblers were now placed in Oreothlypis, along with Lucy’s and Virginia’s Warblers (very cool!) while the Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers stayed as Vermivora! Suddenly (actually not so suddenly), the Connecticut Warbler wasn’t so closely related to the Mourning and the MacGillivray’s, as the Oporornis split into two groups—with the Connecticut Warbler sticking with the Genus Oporornis, and Mourning, Kentucky and MacGillivray’s Warblers joining the Common Yellowthroat in the Genus Geothlypis. Man, knowledge is fun!

I mean, my wife and I fell in love over Dendroica and this now had me questioning everything.

Then it was time to check on the Dendroica—the Black-throated Blue, the Magnolia, the Yellow, the Chestnut-sided and so many more. It appeared that the Parulas and the American Redstart were now known to be in this group—and the Hooded Warbler too—how exciting! The more the merrier! Except for one thing—they weren’t called Dendroica anymore. Setophaga? What the heck was that?

common yellowthroat

common yellowthroat

I hoped—maybe there was a split and the Dendroica name would be passed on to a smaller group? No such luck. It was Setophaga or nothing. In my head I thought, “this injustice will not stand!” I mean, my wife and I fell in love over Dendroica and this now had me questioning everything. Not to exaggerate, but would we have gotten married without Dendroica? With that in mind it was hard to imagine anything good coming from this change. Wait—am I becoming a “marsh hawk” type of guy?

To make matters worse I actually took the time to find out why this injustice had happened. I mean, in what kind of world would Setophaga just blindly replace Dendroica? Well, it ends up that Dendroica was the causality of a technicality. You see the rules of Linnaeus taxonomy state that when new knowledge brings two (or more) species together into one genus, the genus of the species that was described first is the accepted genus for both (or all). The American redstart was given its Latin name (Setophaga ruticilla) before any of the other warblers (given by Carl Linnaeus in 1758). So when they joined with the Dendroica species the American Redstart Latin name took precedent and suddenly—BOOM!—20+ species of warbler had to change their genus. Setophaga. Ugh! I do not like rules like this. Dendroica was wiped off the map simply because it got there late. Technicality. Not a Linnaeus fan at the moment.

“Everything you know is wrong” – ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic

Now, once again it is acknowledged that this is not the biggest issue in the world. But I did have a scary epiphany the other day inspired by this column—not an “exact realization” but something vaguely close.  This epiphany was in the form of a question and it asked—how much exactly of what I have learned so far about nature is wrong? Or is going to change? To be more specific, I’m talking about what I’ve learned from a book, or from school. I guess that is the nice thing about observing, if you believe your eyes (and ears and nose) the knowledge is never going to change.   

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from in “The Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, “intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong.” Sagan was referring to the mathematician Ptolemy (c. 100 – c. 170 AD) who was also the father of the pseudo-science of astrology, but as with all good quotes this one applies beyond Ptolemy. As human knowledge grows a chunk of past “knowledge” is discarded or built upon. I am so glad to live in a time when Ovenbirds are recognized as warblers, but how many times are the Latin names of Mushrooms that I have learned going to change in my lifetime? And do I really have to learn them each time? Especially when my gut tells me they will probably change again and again down the road. This is a personal issue that doesn’t need to be processed here, but its where this column has led to. So it goes.

Which brings us back to Dendroica. This is different than the Ovenbird issue, as Dendroica wasn’t wrong per se, but maybe Setophaga is just more right (or less wrong). This is all based on is human timing—the race for which species Carl Linnaeus (or other species labelers) labeled first. It’s completely arbitrary. I mean, its organized and it shows relations—Linnaeus is “the father of taxonomy” and all (I am the father of Leif and proud of it!) but the wording is still arbitrary. Like that age old stupid argument whether it’s pronounced “Pil-eated” or “Pie-leated” Woodpecker.

Call them what you want, but the warblers just want to mate, eat, clean-up (preen), sleep, and survive.

yellow rumped warbler

yellow rumped warbler

The bottom line is neither the bird nor nature care what you call it. That Black-throated Green Warbler is a Black-throated Green Warbler whether some labeler calls it Dendroica, or Setophaga, or Turdus (just had to throw in a hot Turdus somewhere in this column). With the possibility of some slight genetic changes, Ovenbirds, Black-throated Green Warblers and the rest are the same darned critters today as they were when humans first labeled them. Call them what you want, but the warblers just want to mate, eat, clean-up (preen), sleep, and survive. They couldn’t care less what you or I think. This seems to be an important thing to remember. This observation thing is largely a one-way street, but who doesn’t love a one way street?

And in conclusion…

And so the era of Dendroica seems to be over, for better or for worse (most likely for neutral). Because nature observation is more than knowing the “right” name, getting the best photo, or checking a lost Eagle off a personal list. It’s about them—the birds, the mammals, the mushrooms, the plants, etc.—and their behaviors, adaptations, and lifestyles.

That said, simply seeing the warm orange glow of a Blackburnian Warbler’s throat will warm the heart of any bird-hater (do they even exist?). Any and all (okay, most) connections to nature are important if the end result is people caring more. This is truly another case in the endless list of “whatever gets you out there” cases. Whatever your connection is—connect! Dendroica appears to be gone, but it’s certainly not forgotten. I’m over it, or closer to being over it thanks to this column, so thanks for helping me process. Therapy column, comfort words.

I will always take time out for warblers, but I’ll never be a “marsh hawk” guy.  Change is change and Latin is Latin. And it all seems doable.

So hey—see you out there!       

See more Nature Bummin’ stories from Kirk.

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