Birder's Journal: This Warbler Is a Master of Deception

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Flapping furiously but moving slowly, it rose into the air and made a precarious landing in a sapling a few feet away. An adult then flew in quickly and gracefully, chipping at me in anger. Stubby-tailed and plump-looking, the young bird was mostly pale yellow, its crown showing just a hint of the bold dark stripes that distinguish the adult. Consistent with my noninterference policy, I kept going. On my return, I saw two young birds and an adult.

Unlike the open deciduous woods around the nest, this rocky slope offered plenty of cover. If danger approached, the awkward-flying young had mountain laurel thickets and a spattering of hemlocks in which to hide.

I can't prove these warblers were from the nest I had found, but I believe they were. The young were the right age, and on subsequent walks I would see a family of three or more worm-eating warblers within 100 yards of the nest.

They were lucky birds, I thought, but on reflection I realized this was underestimating them. Like the thief in Edgar Allan Poe's Purloined Letter, the adult female I had almost stepped on was a master of the art of deception. She had placed her well-camouflaged nest "immediately beneath the nose of the whole world, by way of best preventing any portion of that world from perceiving it"—a survival strategy that protected her eggs through 13 days of incubation, and her nestlings until they fledged 10 days later.

Robert Winkler's book of essays on his adventures with birds of the "suburban wilderness" will be published in 2003 by National Geographic Books.

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