Cerulean Warbler: Setophaga cerulea

Cerulean Warbler (source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Cerulean Warblers (Setophaga cerulea) (Passeriformes: Parulidae) are adorable little insectivores that summer in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern US and winter in South America, specifically Colombia and then down the Andes. These warblers are so-called “New World warblers,” from the family Parulidae, as opposed to Old World warblers (Sylvidae, plus a bunch of things formerly classed as sylvids now in various other families) or Australian warblers (Acanthizidae).

Why is “warbler” such a popular name for a bird? Well, a “warbler” is one who “warbles” — that is, who “sing[s] softly and sweetly, in a birdlike manner; often merely [as] a jocose substitute for ‘sing'” (Oxford English Dictionary). I admit, I had to look up the word “jocose”: it means “playful” or “humorous.”

Anyway, the verb “to warble” comes from the Old French word werbler, which is the sound made by vibrations of a stringed instrument (cf Dutch wervel “harp”). Our word “warble” comes from focusing on the sound, but if you focus on the motion of the string, and give it a few centuries, you end up with a meaning along the lines of “something that rotates.” Hence, “whirlpool.” Also, Old Norse hvirfill “circle or ring.”

Three things that werble: a harp, a whirlpool, and a Prothonotary Warbler.

“Warble” has a few other definitions in the OED as well. Its first documented use, somewhere around 1400, has been defined to mean “to proclaim by flourish of trumpets,” and in 1880, Mark Twain used it to mean “to yodel.” (To yodel as in to make that really crazy noise stereotypically heard in the Swiss Alps, not as in to vomit.) In Scots English, “to warble” apparently means “to play the quicker measures of a piece of bagpipe music, in which there are a large number of grace-notes”, and the word has also been documented as meaning “to quarrel,” “to wrangle,” and “to cross the wings together over the back.”

Is this Victoria’s Riflebird warbling? I’m not sure how else a bird can cross its wings over its back!

The word “cerulean” describes a particularly beautiful shade of blue and comes from the Latin word caeruleus which was used to describe the sky, the Mediterranean, leaves, and fields, so it perhaps means a dark blue and/or a dark green? Cultural color boundaries are weird. The species name, cerulea, comes from this Latin caeruleus, with some shenanigans to match the gender of the genus name.

Said genus name Setophaga means “moth-eater,” from the Greek σής (ses, “moth”, plural genitive σητός setos “of moths”) and phaga meaning “eater” (cf our Edible-Nest Swiftlet, Aerodrammus fuciphagus).

Om nom moth

The family name Parulidae comes from the fact that the so-called “parula” warblers were originally classed the genus Parus (as in Parus major, the great tit, studied extensively at my very own Edward Grey Institute of Ornithology) — parula is Latin for “coal tit” (Periparus ater, literally the “workshop almost-tit”).

Coal Tit 2
A coal tit. Not a warbler. Does warble in the singing sense, though not in the bagpiping sense, nor the wing-crossing sense.


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