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20 April 2022

Why North America’s warblers must be protected

The loveliest warblers are the hardest to find because they are now so scarce.

By John Burnside

In Britain we admire warblers for their musical abilities rather than their physical appearance. The sedge warbler, for instance, is an inventive songster and a clever mimic, but its plumage is medium-brown streaked with black and grey, with a silvery, sometimes yellowish stripe above the eye.

British warblers are adapted to fairly monochrome habitats: wood, sedge, reed, marsh, willow. North American warblers, on the other hand, are often beautifully coloured, like the Blackburnian warbler, with its intricate pattern of black-and-white wing-streaks setting off the gorgeous, flame-coloured face and throat, or the tiny Wilson’s warbler, whose yellow face and breast provide the perfect setting for a startling, coal-black eye and an elegant black cap.

The list continues and the names are delightfully suggestive: magnolia warbler, black-throated blue warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, the hooded warbler – which looks for all the world like it is wearing a black balaclava over its bright yellow head. Even the unpromising black-and-white warbler is a study in elegance, with its distinctive pattern of sharply contrasted black-and-white stripes across the upper body. American warblers are often shy and elusive, which probably enhances their appeal. Hearing a warbler’s song is fairly common, but seeing the bird is a rare treat, either because it is well camouflaged in its natural habitat, or because it dwells in dense cover, or high in the forest canopy, only occasionally venturing into the open, or dipping down to eye level.

Inevitably, however, the loveliest warblers are harder to find because they are now so scarce. Fans of Jonathan Franzen may recall Walter Berglund’s fight to save the cerulean warbler from impending extinction in the 2010 novel Freedom, and populations of this beautiful woodland songster have continued to plummet, with the American Bird Conservancy estimating losses of around 70 per cent in the past 40 years. Yet this azure beauty is not alone: across the United States many warbler species are in decline, due to habitat loss and runaway development.

[See also: Where have all the jays come from?]

There have been some success stories. In Michigan an informed conservation campaign has brought the exquisite Kirtland’s warbler back from the brink of extinction, while efforts have begun to save the golden-winged species in Pennsylvania. Other states are not doing so well, as the decades-long battle to save the golden-cheeked warbler in Texas has shown in some rather grotesque legal manoeuvres in recent weeks. This beauty, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, breeds exclusively in the state’s unique Ashe juniper and oak woodlands and was first identified as endangered in 1990. The main threat was habitat destruction due to rapid development between San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth, a region in which, according to official figures, the human population grew by around 50 per cent from 1990 to 2010.

That expansion continues, while the golden-cheeked warbler’s habitat continues to dwindle. Yet during recent efforts to overturn state and federal protection measures, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank whose donors, according to Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, “are a Who’s Who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies”, argued that the species was miraculously prospering, even though the golden-cheeked warbler’s breeding ground had shrunk by around a third. “To my mind,” one TPPF lawyer said, “it’s pretty clear that [numbers] are increasing and that the habitat fragmentation, predation and urbanisation have not been adversely impacting the warblers.”

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This is a bit like saying that the more I punch you in the mouth, the happier you will be – yet the TPPF went on to argue that continued protection for golden-cheeked warblers places an unjust burden on the rights of property owners and developers, and that restrictions on habitat destruction should be lifted. It is a patently absurd argument, one that we might reasonably expect to fail – but this is Texas, so who knows what will happen?

[See also: The wood may not yet be silent, but its birds are far quieter]

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder