Birds: Wilson’s Warbler

What do you call that bright yellow bird with the olive back, black-black eyes, and black hat?  A Yellow Warbler, right? Not exactly. It sure is cute as it sings and eats tiny insects right in front of your eyes.

There are lots of yellow warblers and they all look a little different. With over 35 sub-species of yellow warblers, they are ubiquitous, even one species dancing in the holly outside my office window. They are called by separate names: Hooded, Wilson’s, Yellow, Golden, Mangrove, etc. They live all over North American, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. I have some particular favorites. What are yours?


The Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla) is a small North American songbird and it is fun to watch in the trees at it eats its way through the day, pecking bugs from leaves, branches and on the ground.

Wilson? Who is Wilson?

So who is this guy Wilson, anyway? There are a few birds with his name out there, so he must have discovered a few. The name of the warbler species has remained “Wilson’s” and it is named after Alexander Wilson, who was a noted ornithologist. However, over the years the genus has changed from Wilsonia to Cardellina to Sylvania, before moving it back to Cardellina.


After some research I found out that Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) was a Scottish-American poet, naturalist, illustrator and ornithologist. He had been dubbed the ‘Father of American Ornithology’ by George Ord, for all of his great work on native American birds. [1]

(c) Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, Renfrewshire Council Collections, Including Collections Associated with the Paisley Art Institute; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, Renfrewshire Council Collections, Including Collections Associated with the Paisley Art Institute; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Wilson left Scotland in 1794, sailed to America to change his fortunes, and landed in Philadelphia. He was 27 years old. Apprenticed as a weaver in Scotland many years before, Wilson found a job teaching school at Milestown in Pennsylvania. He soon met William Bartram, who got him interested in bird watching, drawing, and writing. [2]

After many birdwatching outings with Bertram and sketch sessions, Wilson made his mind up to boldly publish a book illustrating all the birds of North American. He traveled widely, observing and painting birds, and gathering subscribers for the book, or rather “books.” Wilson’s nine-volume work, American Ornithology was published in 1808-1814, illustrated 268 species, including descriptions of 26 new species. [3]

Wilson also conducted the first breeding bird census in the US, in William Bartram’s backyard garden. The careful observation corrected earlier errors of taxonomy, and published many observations of bird and environmental natural history. [4]

Audubon Connection

Wilson’s 1810 meeting with John J. Audubon probably inspired the young Audubon to publish his own book on birds. Wilson’s published works and lectures influenced many artists and encouraged budding ornithologists to expand their work. Few bird lovers had a greater impact on ornithology, however, than John J. Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon soon soaked up all of the accolades after Wilson, leaving a large swath of artwork and bird studies named for his massive portfolio of sketches and drawings. [5]

Wilson died in 1813.

2 wilson

Wilson discovered several important species of American birds which bare his name: Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope [6], Wilson’s Snipe, and of course Wilson’s Warbler.


Wilson’s Warbler Country

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler, male


Wilson’s Warbler, female


Wilson’s Storm Petrel


Wilson’s Plover

wilsons phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope [6]

wilson snipe

Wilson’s Snipe



Footnotes to the Wilson’s Warbler story:

[1] http://www.wilsonsociety.org/society/awilsoninfo.html 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Two amateur ornithologists at the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, Brian Malcolm and Tim Lord, discovered a nest of Wilson’s Phalarope chicks in the marshes of Blue Water Lake in Northwestern New Mexico, outside of Thoreau. Their positive identification of the male, female and nesting site moved the breeding lines of this species hundreds of miles furthest west beyond its known nesting sites. Resident Ornithologist, Arch McCallum, authenticated the siting and the nesting pair and helped the boys write up their findings. They published a small article in American Birds Magazine. Brian and Tim were ‘over the moon’ with excitement. Two more avid birders were thus added to the flock of human avian followers.

Ending Note: Keep those binoculars ready. You never know what might show up outside your door and in your neighborhood!

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