The Cape May Warbler is just one more example of how cool nature is, and what a privilege it is to share this continent with such wonderful creatures.

The Cape May Warbler has spent its winters in Cuba and the surrounding islands for countless centuries. Well before folks from Europe ever named that territory the West Indies, this tiny bird had figured out that these tropical islands were a better place to spend the winter than the cold boreal forests of Canada.

It did not stop wintering in Cuba just because the Europeans came. Across the four-and-a-half centuries from the establishment of the first Spanish settlement in 1511 to the beginning of the Castro regime in 1959, the Cape May Warbler continued to grace the island with its presence every winter without fail. In 1526 it witnessed the arrival of the first slaves, who planted the sugar cane and tobacco that displaced much of the native flora. It dodged the cannon fire as one human group after another waged war to stake their claim to “ownership” of this beautiful island. In 1962, when Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev came within a feather of destroying our world, the Cape May Warbler was there.


And it rides the autumn winds to Cuba every winter still, following the rhythms of nature, even as we humans are blown here and there by all manner of political tempests. To us, 500 years is a long time. To the tiny Cape May Warbler, it's a blip on the millennia-long evolutionary cycle that led to a migration route that recognizes no human-made national boundaries.

Every year, as spring arrives, the Cape May Warbler leaves the tropical islands and heads north, all the way to the boreal forests of Canada, where its fate is tied almost exclusively to its preferred food, the spruce budworm. It suffers when there are few budworms, and its population spikes whenever there is a generous hatch of nutritious budworms. As winter approaches, the bird’s food supply disappears, and back it goes to the West Indies, wondering on the way who will be in control in Cuba, and whether power has been restored yet in Puerto Rico, after the latest hurricane.


There are no spruce budworms in Cuba and Puerto Rico, but the Cape May Warbler has that covered. It has a special tube-like curled tongue that helps it collect nectar—the main diet during the winter. You can almost picture the beautiful Cape May Warbler in a palm tree sipping a pina colada, calmly observing the vagaries of the flash-in-the-pan human beings below, and wondering if those humans will still be around 500 years from now.

Viva la Reinita Atigrada! Long live the Cape May Warbler!

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.