A beautiful bird with a confusing name

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One of the most beautiful and charming birds found in the eastern part of the United States is officially known as the prothonotary warbler. What a name with which to saddle the golden swamp warbler. People who cannot spell or pronounce “prothonotary” prefer to use the latter name for this member of the extensive warbler family.

The scientific name of this species is Protonotarius and refers to certain high Vatican officials whose vestments are bright yellow. In this sense, the bird is aptly named, but one wonders how the official common name of prothonotary became misspelled from a mixture of Greek and Latin (proto, Greek for first, and notarius, Latin for notary). In any event, the word prothonotary is now sometimes used for the high clerk of a court. I prefer to use the more appropriate name of golden swamp warbler and stop worrying about how many syllables there are in prothonotary and its etymological origin.

When canoeing along a tree-covered stretch of the Kishwaukee River or prowling about a wooded swampy area from spring to early fall, you may hear a series of six to eight emphatic notes, which sound like “sweet, sweet, sweet”, etc. An investigation of the source of the call will reveal the golden swamp warbler with its conspicuous golden-yellow breast and head and unstriped, bluish wings. This captivating bird is only about 5 inches in length and the easiest type of warblers to identify (at least for me). Males and females exhibit a similar coloration, with the female’s yellow being somewhat duller than the male’s. Along with the painted bunting found in the west, I consider the golden swamp warbler one of the most striking birds in North America,

The late Dr. Frank M. Chapman, a famous ornithologist and longtime Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, was so impressed by this bird that he wrote the following in 1907: “The charm of its haunts and beauty of its plumage combine to render the prothonotary warbler the most attractive of the warbler family. No neck-straining examination with opera glasses pointed to the treetops is required to determine his identity, as flitting about from bush to bush along the river’s edge, his golden plumes were displayed as though for my special benefit.”

The swamp warbler’s center of abundance as a breeding bird is in the valley of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. In the east, it breeds from New Jersey to Florida, wherever it can find suitable habitat.

The list of birds observed at the Severson Dells Nature Center and Forest Preserve lists it as occurring rarely there. I observed it many times when I lived in Maryland, but only three times in Illinois: once along the Kishwaukee River in Winnebago County, once in the Volo Bog in Lake County, and once in a wooded wetland in Crete in northern Will County just south of the Cook County line. I have a wooded semi-wetland behind my house in Loves Park and have been waiting patiently for years for it to make an appearance; but no luck so far.

The golden swamp warbler and Lucy’s warbler (found in the southwestern states) are the only two members of the family to nest habitually in tree holes. Nesting has been observed in many types of trees with a slight preference for dead willow stumps. It is resourceful, however, and it will establish its nest elsewhere if necessary. Bird houses may be utilized, and there is a report of a pair building their nest and raising their broods for three consecutive seasons in the pocket of an old hunting coat hanging in a barn. Each year in the fall, the owner of the coat would clean out the old nest, and the next spring the warblers would return and use it again.

In late summer, the golden swamp warbler heads south on a direct flight across the Gulf of Mexico, with no stopover in Cuba, to the Yucatan region of Mexico. Be sure to look for the prothonotary—oops—I mean the golden swamp warbler the next time you visit wooded wetlands in spring or summer. It should be on everyone’s lifetime bird list.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Dec. 20-26, 2006, issue

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