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Warblers and the Question of Gratuitous Beauty

A migraine is an acceptable excuse for calling in late to work. A migration, apparently, is not.

Ahhh, but it should be.

Last week I tried to explain to a non-birder colleague why I might occasionally be arriving late to the office over the next couple weeks. My impassioned excitement — complete with the latest BirdCast satellite data — was met with a blank unconvinced stare. And yet, as I write this, the bird migration forecast anticipates 265 million birds in flight over the U.S. tonight, whisking their way north. Some of them will stop here in Charlotte for breakfast. And some of those will be warblers.

In her new book Looking Up: A Birder’s Guide to Hope Through Grief, Courtney Ellis aptly refers to warblers as “the Easter eggs of the birding world,” for three reasons: they’re round-shaped, very colorful, and hard to find. Sometimes maddeningly hard to find, actually. While a few warbler species will acquiesce to come to ground level for a good photo opp (thank you, Common Yellowthroat), many of them seem to prefer the highest branches of the highest trees, resulting in a birdwatching medical condition known as “warbler neck” — a cervical pain caused by looking upward with binoculars for extended periods (Take heed, people: May is Warbler Neck Awareness Month… maybe?).


And yet once you spy your first Chestnut-sided or Blackburnian Warbler, you might decide it was worth the off-season chiropractic care. Imagine a classroom of kids, each one given a coloring page of the same basic bird shape, along with a box of crayons. The resulting wall of creative art might still fall short of the fantastic variations that real-world warblers provide — unnatural hues, delicate striping, intricate accents. These little birds aren’t simply colorful; they’re adorned, as if they dressed up and accessorized for the trip. The Canada Warbler wears a black necklace. The Black-Throated Blue Warbler dons a pocket handkerchief (I like to think of it as a wristwatch). The Golden-winged Warbler wears trendy U2 wrap-around sunglasses. The Hooded Warbler — my personal favorite — sports a stealthy ninja mask, as if dressed for a covert operation.

The variety of patterns is matched by a unique variety of telltale songs, helping greatly with identification, since you'll probably hear them before you see them. They’re called warblers, after all — a term coined way before Sinatra by a Welsh ornithologist in the 1770s. A warbler song teases, beckons. Yesterday a Cape May Warbler beguiled me for fifteen solid minutes before finally coming into the open for a visual I.D. At least he eventually cooperated; a Yellow Warbler in the same tree never showed himself. With these secretive Easter-egg birds, sometimes the song is all you get, and so birders quickly get familiar with warbler-warbles. There’s the hurried upswing buzz of the Northern Parula, and the more measured rising notes of the Prairie Warbler. I love the squeaky-wheel notes of the Black-and-White Warbler, the confidently bold tweets of the Prothonotary, and the slow Witchita-Witchita-Witchita of the Common Yellowthroat, which sounds to me like a decaffeinated Carolina Wren. And then there’s the emphatic Ovenbird, who starts his teacher-teacher-teacher song calmly and subdued, but then builds in volume until he’s clearly yelling at you (a pattern that’s also the formula for most Foo Fighters tunes).


There are 47 species of New World Warblers (commonly referred to as wood-warblers), all of them exclusive to the Americas. Each has a unique style, personality, presentation, and approach. And spending any amount of time easter-egg-hunting for them will lead you to a reasonable question.


Why such extravagance?



Gratuitous Use of the Color Yellow


This isn’t just a small question. It’s a question that, if you let it, will reshape your paradigms about the nature of the world itself. G.K. Chesterton said of his conversion to Christianity, “I had always believed the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.” Warblers are the sort of magic that makes you consider the magician. It’s the kind of beauty that might make you call in late to work.


Paul wrote in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Maybe that verse could stand as the proof text and purpose statement for every post on this site; the creation has lessons to school us in the character of God himself. Much as we may try to demystify and biologically complicate things, Paul reminds us that the deepest part of every human heart still perceives an art that says “artist,” a story that says “author,” a making that says “maker.”

Blackburnian Warbler, © 2019 Ezra Staengl, MacCauley Library

Creation doesn’t tell us everything we need to know, of course. As James Bond might say, the world is not enough. God has given us his Word as a higher rung on the ladder, and it’s why a passage like Psalm 19 can flow so effortlessly from “The heavens declare the glory of God” (v. 1) to “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (v. 7). But too many Christians thereby dismiss the creation, ignoring its role as a legitimate signpost to the wonders of a crazy-creative God. Maybe a warbler can’t lead you to the saving love of God, but it can lead you to admit he exists, and spill the beans on his “eternal power and divine nature.”

How? In the case of warblers, what gets my attention is their absolutely unnecessary beauty. Gratuitous beauty. Yes, research paper after research paper will continue to posit the evolutionary advantages of a bird’s bright plumage or detailed features, genetic adaptations to better the chances of wooing increasingly picky mates. But take another look. Consider, for instance, the Black-throated Gray Warbler. It has a small yellow facial dot between beak and eye. It’s stunning in its subtlety. Riddle me this: what is the evolutionary advantage of that spot? And if there truly is a benefit in it, why don’t the other 46 species have it too? Does a dab of yellow need a DNA-sequenced explanation? If your only mechanism is natural selection, then yes. But if a designer is in play, then is it possible that we’re just witnessing the divine mirth of “art for art’s sake?”


Black-throated Grey Warbler, © 2016 Melissa James, MacCauley Library

I’m not trying to debunk evolution in a paragraph. But really, what’s with all the beauty? These are the thoughts that reasonable souls might find themselves thinking as they train their warbler-necks upward. There are things in this world that are unexplainable at the level of utility, pragmatism, and natural selection. Some might say, “Well, we don’t have all the information in yet.” Yes, and we never will. But there’s a warbler with a yellow eye-dot (or another with a yellow throat, or yet another with a yellow rump) that dares you not to see the hand of the artist.



Prodigal Art


The warbler lifts our eyes above our survival-of-the-fittest cynicism and reminds us of a prodigal God. Yes, I said prodigal. The familiar parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 has led us to assume that the word prodigal means “wayward.” True, meaning is usage, and — thanks to the parable itself — the word has come to describe a foolish wanderer.

But we have Tim Keller to thank for reclaiming the original meaning of prodigal. According to Merriam-Webster’s, a prodigal is “one who spends or gives lavishly.” It’s recklessly excessive. Over-the-top. Extravagant. Gratuitous. Unnecessary. The younger brother in that parable certainly spent his inheritance prodigally. But Keller uses that reclaimed word to describe the work of Christ our elder brother on our behalf, the prime example of an extravagant God who has not spared his own son and will “freely give us all things” (Romans 8:32). The costly atonement of Jesus is the richest of gifts, disclosing a prodigal attitude that Keller refers to as “The God of Great Expenditure.”

Hooded Warbler
Stealthy-Ninja Hooded Warbler © 2017 Kevin Couture, MacCauley Library

If God reveals himself in both Word and world, shouldn’t we expect to encounter instances of lavishly prodigal beauty in creation as well as redemption? Look up. There are warblers in the trees, each adorned with prodigal artistry. As artist and writer Makoto Fujimura says, “Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God; it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character. God, out of his gratuitous love, created a world he did not need because he is an artist.”


A feather, all by itself, should be enough to convince you of intelligent design. But arrange four thousand of them together around the small frame of a songbird, and any sane heart must surrender to this discovery: the design isn’t just intelligent.

It’s beautiful.


Did I mention I’ll be late for work tomorrow?


Wow! What a beautiful (!) article. Thank you!


Wonderful article! This is why I do what I do for a hobby, and in fact, why I am meeting a lifelong friend in an hour at one of our birding hotspots here in Maryland. Thank you for pointing to our Creator, which every bird I observe (or hear), points me to gloriously, by the grace of our Lord and Savior.

Chip (my real nickname, yes!)

Replying to

Thanks. May you and your friend find many warblers, Chip!

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