On Golden Wings, or Blue

by Conrad Vispo


We had followed its song into a thicket by a hayfield, beckoned by what we thought was the song of the Golden Winged Warbler. However, when we finally spotted the bird flitting amongst low trees, its yellow body, grey wings and black mask declared it to be a Blue Winged Warbler. The distinction between the two species isn’t trivial. It tells a story about our land, of where it’s been and where we may be taking it.

Some two hundred years ago, the Golden Winged and Blue Winged Warblers led largely separate lives in the brush resulting from disruptions such as fire, flood, wind, and early agriculture. The Blue Winged nested mainly in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, straggling through southern Illinois and Indiana. The closely-related Golden Winged bred pretty much where it does now – straddling the US/Canada border from Minnesota to Vermont and dipping down into the northern portions of the Blue Winged’s range. Then, as we changed our land, the fortunes of these two species changed.

The spread of extensive farmland from New England to the Midwest during the 1800’s opened up a field and shrubland highway that species such as the Blue Winged Warbler followed northeast. Where its nesting grounds overlapped extensively with those of the Golden-Winged, the two interbred producing fertile young which tended to resemble the Blue-winged. Furthermore, as the highway of openland has been shrunk by reforestation or development, it seems that the more opportunistic and tolerant Blue-Wingeds have tended to dominate ecologically. Evidently, these two apparent species had relied on geographic separation to keep their bloodlines separate, neither their genetics nor their ecologies seem suited for substantial coexistence. It is predicted that the Golden-Winged will be extinct in much of its former range by 2050.

Should we concern ourselves? Yes, although I am not so naïve as to think the fate of two relatively obscure warblers is, in itself, likely to achieve prominence. I am not even sure of the specific moral of their story. Rather, these two species are innocent reminders of one of modern humanity’s Achilles heals: i.e., that which we learn from is largely restricted to what we experience in our own life times. Gone are the oral traditions that handed down personal ethnic and familial history as an evolving set of stories and legends. Often living removed from other generations of our family, we largely lack a personalized transgenerational memory and so find it hard to appreciate change that occurs at time scales longer than our own memories. These warblers are reminders that when we are inadvertent poisoners of this planet, we often as not employ a cumulative arsenic of sorts rather than an instant cyanide. The ultimate result is the same, but our ability to viscerally perceive the act differs and hence too its likelihood of widespread realization and of correction. From ecology to politics, the conceit of the present rarely bows to the mutterings of the past, even when it would be in its own better interest.