Two warblers have been doing their best to confuse me over the last few springs…  They are both fairly common around here.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler Closeup

Chestnut-Sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler Closeup

Now you may look at those two pictures and think, “This WinterWoman person is crazy.  Those two birds don’t look anything alike!”  You may be right about the crazy part, and I do recognize the field marks of these two species… when they’ll let me see them.  The Yellow Warbler is a little less shy and will flit before me when I walk the trails at Audubon.  I almost never see the Chestnut-sided.  Most often, though, I hear them first and see them later – if at all.

The Yellow Warbler’s song is often described with the phrase “Sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet, I’m so sweet!”  Listen to it by clicking here (from Cornell).

The Chestnut-sided Warbler’s song is described as, “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!”  Listen to it by clicking here (from Cornell).

Pretty similar.  Pretty frustrating to a reluctant birder who is just trying to get it right…  It took me a few seasons to add habitat clues:  Near water?  Probably the Yellow Warbler.  Shrubby woods?  Probably the Chestnut-sided.

I finally got around to reading accounts of these two birds after catching and banding both at Tom’s SWAT banding station.  I was delighted to find that even the experts find the songs to be very similar.  In fact, look what it says at the Cornell website:

Recent DNA-based studies indicate that the Chestnut-sided Warbler is the closest relative of the Yellow Warbler. Both sing similarly phrased songs, and Yellow Warblers regularly sing songs nearly identical to those of the Chestnut-sided Warbler.  (source)

Ha!  No wonder I was confused!

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7 thoughts on “Relatives

  1. It’s interesting that the song is a better index of relatedness than the plumage. I wonder if that’s true for other species as well?

  2. Fascinating post. Dave raises an interesting point and makes me wonder about ducks — don’t many of them pretty much sound alike ?? If one considers that it is the song that initially attracts mates or species to each other, then with speciation one would think that there would be more relatedness with the song than the plumage. Does this make sense ?? I wonder — do the Yellow W and CNS Warbler ever hybridize ??

  3. (laugh) Had the exact same problem with the yellow warblers in North Dakota. I’d thought the chestnut-sideds had a funny accent, but no – they were yellows.

  4. I rarely have the opportunity to confuse them, simply because chestnut-sided warblers are such rarities around here. But hearing them back-to-back and I have to agree that I would probably mis-ID the CSW at first.

  5. Jennifer, these images are absolutely stunning! I had a problem identifying goldfinches at first, because I didn’t realize there were so many different types.

    Now, if you have any hints for driving scrub jays away, I’d like to hear them! They’ve raised babies in our photinia hedge out back and our goldfinches have left.

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