They Are Not “Wild Canaries”

Yellow Warbler, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

Yellow Warbler, Creamer’s Refuge, Fairbanks

When WC was a young pup, even more ignorant than now, he’d see these bright, yellow birds flitting around in the willow and alder thickets. When WC asked someone, possibly his scoutmaster, what they were, he was told they were “wild canaries.” They’re not, of course. They are Yellow Warblers.

WC mentions this because he had an email from someone recently reporting they had seen “wild canaries” near their home in Fairbanks.

It’s good to see the old myths are still circulating almost 60 years later.

Canaries are Old World – meaning Eastern Hemisphere – birds in two genera, consisting of about eight species. They are an Old World finch. The best known is the Atlantic Canary, a species endemic to the Canary Islands, that in captivity has been selectively bred to get a bright yellow cage bird. Wild canaries are pretty drab.

Yellow Warblers, as the name says, are a species of North American Wood-Warbler. Pretty much anywhere in North America that you find willows, you find Yellow Warblers.


And Yellow Warblers are anything but drab.

Yellow Warbler, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Yellow Warbler, Dalton Highway, Alaska

Yellow Warblers are bright yellow with variable amounts of chestnut streaking on the breast. Further south in their range, they have variable amounts of chestnut on the head as well. The streaking is usually more prominent in adult males and less so in females and immature birds.

Yellow Warbler Feeding Chicks, Denali Highway, Alaska

Yellow Warbler Feeding Chicks, Denali Highway, Alaska

(Yes, WC could have gotten closer, or even broken some of the twigs and leaves for a clearer photo. But that would have likely killed the hatchlings. Warbler nests are concealed for good reason. The world is full of warbler-eating predators.)

They are likely one of the most widely distributed North American warbler. WC has seen them in Oaxaca, Mexico, in brushy thickets along streams on the North Slope of Alaska and pretty much everywhere in between.

WC doesn’t care if you remember all the details. But please do remember: they are not “wild canaries.”