Northern Parulas sing two distinct songs. (Photo by Chris Brown)

SPECIES SPOTLIGHT: Northern Parula

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May 9, 2020 | by Chris Brown

Male Northern Parula showing off his necklace. (Photo by Chris Brown)

I have a definite pattern of emotions that begins sometime in February each year. Winter shows signs of losing its grasp on the northeast. I can feel the light coming in through the cracks. March comes, and spring begins in March! Spring! But March is the month of unsteady weather. Cabin fever begins to feel like a bigger burden when it’s really, actually, technically spring! April rolls around and it’s almost too hard to contain the anticipation; the coming warmer days and the arrival of birds in their showy spring garb, colors warm enough to melt the last frosts of winter. Birdsong, we know, will soon fill the air.

And then it happens.

Here in New Jersey one of the surest signs of spring is the first time I hear the buzzy, emphatic song of a Northern Parula; usually the first warbler species to arrive in my area each year.

These brilliant little birds are widespread nesters east of the Great Plains from Manitoba to Florida. Parulas primarily take advantage of hanging clumps of vegetation such as Spanish Moss in the southern part of its breeding range or Beard Moss in the north, both of which often are found in abundance around waterways. Occasionally they will nest in tangles left on branches after flooding recedes.  The female makes an entrance in the side of the clump and lines the interior with other vegetation. Males sing two songs: one is a high-pitched buzz which rises up the scale and ends in a separate note. The other, which I call the “Porky Pig” song can be represented as “BEE-budah-BEE-budah-beebEEBEE!”

Although a few winter in the southern US, particularly extreme south Florida, the bulk of Northern Parulas spends the cold months in the Caribbean and on the Yucatan Peninsula and Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico where they use a wider variety of habitats than they do during the summer.

So we have established, of course, that this is a warbler we’re talking about. This begs the questions “Well, why not call it a warbler?’, and “What does ‘parula’ even mean, anyway?” It’s an example how we all make mistakes.

The story goes that Linnaeus, the father of scientific taxonomy himself, he who first described the bird in 1758 had erroneously believed it to be a member of the titmouse genus (Parus at the time), naming it Parus americanus. While the species’ exact placement among the warbler clan, and therefore its generic epithet, remains a matter of uncertainty, one thing is for sure: a Parula isn’t a type of chickadee. So in 1838 Charles Bonaparte, nephew of the famous emperor and himself a preeminent ornithologist of his day, coined Parula, meaning “little titmouse”. The word Parulidae, the family to which the wood-warblers belong, comes from the same source. For the record: I personally don’t believe there is a “right” way to say “parula”, although there are definitely wrong ways!

So, while it isn’t the rarest warbler, in fact it is quite common over much of its range, the ritual, and the feeling is the same each year, and they are rare, but annual: one morning, about when the pears and cherries and redbuds begin to bloom I’ll hear him: Porky Pig. And suddenly the world feels a little warmer.

(That’s all, folks.)

Northern Parula showing the olive-green shield on its back. (Photo by Chris Brown)

Join us on a spring migration tour in the Dry Tortugas, West Virginia, or Ohio/Michigan for a chance to see this warbler and test your ID skills!

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