Tennessee Warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina): Barry Kent MacKay

The Tennessee Warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina) can certainly be seen in Tennessee spring and fall, as well as in all the other eastern U.S. States and Canadian provinces, but not during the nesting season, when it occurs in boreal forests from Canada’s west coast and the Northwest Territories east as far as Newfoundland, and south into upstate New York and the New England States in the east, and a bit of Montana in the west. And in winter look for it in tropical regions of Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean. It is only called “Tennessee” because the first specimen known to science, obtained by famed Scots-American ornithologist (himself a prodigious wanderer), Alexander Wilson (1766 – 1813) on the shore of the Cumberland River, Tennessee, during migration in 1811. The scientific specific name, peregrina, which means “wanderer”, is far more accurate.  The genus name is derived from the the ancient Greek, λειος/leios, meaning “plain”, combined with θλυπις/thlupis, an unknown species of small bird Aristotle mentioned. In a large family of birds, the Parulidae, found only in the western hemisphere, that is noted from striking patterns and bright colors, the Tennessee is rather plain. That said, I find them elegant of appearance when see up close, the subtle pattern, color and form all beautifully harmonized into a charming whole.

Some four or five decades ago my mother, the late Phylis E. MacKay, and I were rescuing small, nocturnally migrant birds that were hitting tall structures in Toronto and we happened to have four warblers that we felt were too injured to release, yet healthy enough to recover.  All four were kept (under authority of the appropriate federal permit, since migratory birds are protected by law) over the winter.  We put them all in a large cage, although they were allowed out to fly around the apartment. They got along fine, but while the others, while charming and brightly colored, did not share the Tennessee’s sheer exuberance, in part manifest by his singing, which began not too long past the winter solstice, and went on all day. In May, as warblers were migrating through the region, we released them with a second chance at the risky business of survival.

Although highly insectivorous, Tennessees love small berries, as well as numerous kinds of arthropods, nectar, and other plant material, including small seeds. They are specialized consumers of the cyclically occurring Spruce Budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana), notoriously “the most destructive insect” in North America, and numbers of Tennessee Warbler fluctuate in harmony with outbreaks of Choristoneura, thus the birds are one of several species helping to control this insect, a voracious consumer of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) and other coniferous trees. As an aside, I think it sad that we have to try to pin monetary values, plus or minus, on the birds, the bugs, or the trees, to justify values – all belong to the ecological whole that best functions absent our interference, but unlike the budworm or the warbler, our growth curve has not been cyclic, but increasingly upward, with all the demands we place on the world we share with these fascinating animals and plants.

Enough sermonizing.  While they may well breed in mixed deciduous-conifer woodlands, I associate them with spruce and tamarack dominated bogs, where they make cup-shaped nests on the ground, well hidden under roots and shrubs, and lined with fine plant material and animal hair.  Four to seven eggs are laid, with a larger number laid when there will be major outbreaks of Spruce Budworm, as though the birds’ reproductive systems can anticipate the near future – a characteristic noted in other species of boreal birds. 

This little painting is approximately life size, in oils on pre-gessoed compressed wood fiber panel, 10 by 8 inches.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/barry-mackay 


31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *