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by Tom Thomson
Being a Hooded Warbler
Imagine that you are a hooded warbler.
You are about five and a half inches long, have a wing span of eight inches, and your average weight is 10.7 grams. That is less than half an ounce. Let's say you are a male, three years old, and that you first saw the light of day on a wooded slope in the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County, Ohio.
You were hatched from a creamy white egg, a wreath speckled around the larger end with chestnut brown markings. The egg was 17.6 by 13.6 millimeters. There were four eggs and although all of them hatched you were the only nestling to reach maturity. One by one your siblings perished, the first crowded out of the nest by a baby cowbird intruder, the second succumbed to a marauding blue jay, the third was almost fully grown when it was hit one morning on the Clear Creek road by a speeding car.
So you are a survivor. You spent ten days in the nest and you were fed by both your parents who continued to feed you until you were nearly full grown. Gradually you picked up the knack of fending for yourself. Intently you would watch your parents, follow them about in short fluttering flights, or on fast feet; then cling to roots and stems, frequently concealing yourself from dangers real and imagined amidst sprouts of big floppy leaves on sapling trees or in clumps of ferns.
When food was plentiful, you noticed how they browsed through the foliage and along rotting tree limbs and logs, gleaning aphids, spiders, and larvae with what seemed to be the greatest of ease. During cold snaps and the cool hours of early morning, you saw how they frequently darted from their perches like flycatchers, snapped up passing flies, moths, and wasps. Through a process of trial and error, by the end of the summer, you had become quite proficient at providing for yourself.
You also learned the proper way to sing by listening intently to the various renditions of your male parent's songs. Mostly they were in phrases of from four to seven syllables. There was a nice musical quality to the songs, an easy casualness to the weeta-weetawee-teeo notes in which the next to last note was slurred higher.
In the Warblers of the Americas, by Curson, Quinn, and Beadle, your species' song is described as too-ee, too-ee, too-ee, tee-chu.
Frank Chapman, author of The Warblers of North America, used a bit of fancy transliteration in saying the song sounded like "you must come to the woods or you won't see me." Of course, you know nothing of such human frivolity. There were also a score of call-notes to learn, loud chips with many nuances, each one with its own special meaning.
When you were hatched you came into the world almost naked but within a few days you had a nice coat of sepia-gray natal down which gave way to your juvenal plumage of yellowish-brown feathers above, primrose yellow below, and a brownish wash on your throat and flanks. Already you have gained the white spots on your three outer tail feathers, important genera and species identification marks.
By the end of July you had undergone a postjuvenal (prebasic) molt by which you acquired a plumage quite similar to that of the adult males. You now wear the hood, jet black from the crown of your head, down the sides of your throat and spilling onto your chin. Your back and wings are bright olive-green, your forehead, sides of head, breast and belly are a rich lemon-yellow. Your black bill and eyes match your hood. The only clues that you are not an adult: a few yellowish feather edgings overriding the black markings of your hood, most noticeable on the throat.
So here you are, a full-fledged member of the hooded warbler tribe, Wilsonia citrina, the generic term named after that famous early American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson; the Latin specific name for the color of a lemon. But, of course, you know nothing of this. Systematics and nomenclature are beyond your ken. You know who you are inherently, in much the same way a human without benefit of genetic knowledge knows who he or she is. You don't need to be told.
As a hooded warbler, you are one individual out of a population of possibly 75,000 others. The number might be a few more, a few less. However many, it is not many. No one knows for sure, but the chances are that all of the hooded warblers in existence, if given one seat apiece, wouldn't fill up Ohio Stadium.
What is known for sure is that your species nests from eastern Texas to northern Florida, north to New England and west to southern Ontario, and even farther west to a small portion of eastern Nebraska. A large area, true, but the problem is that in many regions the habitat suitable for your needs is severely limited. Basically, you and your brethren prefer two ecological niches, one along the edges and ridges of swampland, the other in forested areas of mixed hardwoods such as beech, maple, hickory, and oak. A bit of running water nearby is an added fillip, and a few hills are better yet.
You should know a few other things about yourself. Your life process began as an ovum, an egg, produced by the female's ovary and deposited within a follicle. It was then released and passed into the oviduct where it was fertilized. Mostly yolk, it then received a generous covering of albumin from glands located in the mid-section of the oviduct. Glands in the lower part of the uterus added a shell, pigmented it, and you were ready for business. This was accomplished by the egg being squeezed from the uterus through the vagina, into the cloaca and out the anus.
Both your parents assumed equal responsibilities of incubation, brooding, and feeding you and your siblings. Your male parent even assumed the chore of cleaning the nest. Your mother would give a call and he would come flying, pick at any parasites that were apparent, then gather up the fecal sacs and fly away.
The rate of your heart beat is about 305 times per minute. Your body temperature fluctuates considerably but probably averages out at about 104 degrees F. Many of your bones are pneumatic, that is, they are hollow, filled with air for lightness. They have great tensile strength and are frequently fused to adjacent bones. The most highly specialized bone in your body is the sternum, or breastbone, the ventral surface of which is keeled, like the bottom of a sailboat. This allows more surface for the attachment of the muscles that operate your wings. And speaking of muscles, you have 175 different ones, all paired so that they are similar on both sides of your body.
You have a relatively large heart for such a small body. It has four chambers like those of mammals. You possess a two-lobed liver, two kidneys, and a stomach with two parts, one of which is a gizzard which grinds diligently to digest food. You have a small intestine and a large intestine.
As a male you have two testes, which are also called gonads. During the breeding season your testes will more than double in size. Each one has a small projection called the epididymis from which springs the vas deferens, a tiny convoluted duct which widens into a seminal vesicle as it approaches the cloaca. The vas deferens will transmit your spermatoza. You have no penis.
Female birds have a somewhat similar cloaca. When the time comes for you to copulate with a female your spermatozoa will be passed to her through the rubbing together of the cloacae. The meeting will be brief but repeated often.
A word about your senses. You have an olfactory organ which enables you to smell, and you have very efficient organs of hearing, although you don't have any external ears. The feathers covering the ear opening are called auriculars. They are light and fluffy, sometimes can be crested a bit, evidently don't interfere one whit with your hearing ability. You have a tympanum or eardrum and a middle ear with three semicircular canals. In their own way, they are as complicated as those of the mammals and incorporate many other membranes and small bones. Compared to humans, your sense of hearing is superior, as is true of most birds. There are stories about how the French kept parrots in their fortifications and even in the top of the Eiffel Tower during World War I to detect the sounds of approaching aircraft and zeppelins.
Your sense of sight, as is true with most birds, is superb. The eyes of birds are extremely large, often weighing more than the brain, and yours are no exception. You can change focus rapidly for close-up and distant viewing; it's as if your eyes combined the usefulness of a telescope and a microscope. Since your eyes are placed on the sides of your head, you have what is called monocular vision with only a limited amount of binocular ability. To correct for this in ascertaining distance and keeping a sharp lookout for enemies, you have an extra supply of neck vertebrae which enable you to easily turn your head. A bit of head bobbing also helps solve this problem. The image-forming tissues of your retinas are almost twice as thick as in humans. They are crammed with rods that are sensitive to extremely low levels of light. The retinal cones are concentrated in a cluster called the fovea. At this point you achieve your sharpest vision. It's like wearing a pair of bifocals.
You have what is sometimes called a third eyelid. This is a nicitating membrane which is semitransparent and in addition to cleansing the eye, protects it. I have an idea that it might also be used in some unknown way like a computer screen for displaying navigational aids during migration. Perhaps the rods and cones align themselves like tiny compass needles, responding to the stimuli of polarized light, or the electromagnetism of the sun or the stars in the sky. Who is to say? This is only wild conjecture on my part. Between the two of us, only you know the answers and, my little friend, unfortunately you cannot communicate your knowledge to me.
Before you know it, sometime in late July or early August, you will leave your home in the valley and commence an epic migration that will eventually take you to the Yucatan Peninsula, or Guatemala, or Costa Rica, or maybe the West Indies.
Which place it will be, I can only hazard a guess. It's entirely possible that at this point in your life you don't know either. In all probability, you will fly along with others of your kind, rely on their experience, follow their call notes across the lonely night skies. In all probability, you will return to these same hills where you first saw the light of day.
When the time comes, all I can do as a rather awkward mammal, land-bound and slow-moving, is wish you bon voyage, and a safe return.
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