Politics & Policy

The Unsung Hero of the Cold War

The conservative movement's official bird isn't a hawk.

When it comes to foreign policy, many conservatives are hawks. But if the conservative movement needs an official bird, just like every state has, then there’s a clear choice for us: the prothonotary warbler. It’s the only bird to catch a Commie.

At this very moment, these small yellow birds with a hard-to-pronounce name are reaching their breeding grounds in the wetlands of the eastern United States. They’ll spend a few months among us laying eggs, raising their young, and reducing the bug population. Around the middle of summer, they’ll begin their annual migration to Central and South America, where they spend the winter.

“They only weigh about 15 grams apiece,” says Jeff Hoover, an avian ecologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey. “When you think about it, they make an amazing journey, and sometimes they even return to the exact same nest as the year before.”

In 1948, one of these tiny birds helped make Cold War history by exposing a traitor when anti-Communism was just, um, a fledgling cause.

A congressional panel was trying to determine whether Whittaker Chambers knew Alger Hiss in the 1930s — a pertinent question, as Chambers had accused Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union. Rep. Richard Nixon asked Chambers to describe the interior of the Hiss home, what kind of meals Hiss ate, and so on. Then Benjamin Mandel, an aide, and John McDowell, a Pennsylvania congressman, chimed in (according to this transcript):

Mr. MANDEL. Did Mr. Hiss have any hobbies?

Mr. CHAMBERS. Yes, he did. [Alger and Priscilla Hiss] both had the same hobby — amateur ornithologists, bird observers. They used to get up early in the morning and go to Glen Echo, out the canal, to observe birds. I recall once they saw, to their great excitement, a prothonotary warbler.

Mr. McDOWELL. A very rare specimen?

Mr. CHAMBERS. I never saw one. I am also fond of birds.

Nine days later, Hiss appeared before the same group. He denied having known Chambers. But then this line of questioning did him in:

Mr. NIXON. What hobby, if any, do you have, Mr. Hiss?

Mr. HISS. Tennis and amateur ornithology.

Mr. NIXON. Is your wife interested in ornithology?

Mr. HISS. I also like to swim and also like to sail. My wife is interested in ornithology, as I am, through my interest. Maybe I am using too big a word to say an ornithologist because I am pretty amateur, but I have been interested in it since I was in Boston. I think anybody who knows me would know that.

Mr. McDOWELL. Did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?

Mr. HISS. I have right here on the Potomac. Do you know that place?

The CHAIRMAN. What is that?

Mr. NIXON. Have you ever seen one?

Mr. HISS. Did you see it in the same place?

Mr. McDOWELL. I saw one in Arlington.

Mr. HISS. They come back and nest in those swamps. Beautiful yellow head, a gorgeous bird.

This exchange was crucial. In Witness, Chambers discussed its importance: “It was that beautiful bird, glimpsed in a moment of wonder, one summer morning some fourteen years before, that first clinched the Committee’s conviction that I must have known Alger Hiss,” he wrote. “The man who knew that fugitive detail must have known Alger Hiss.”

And so this feathered friend earned its storied place in the annals of anti-Communism.

Prothonotary warblers are rarely seen on the Potomac. “Up there, it’s a scarce bird,” says Charles Blem, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University biologist. They’re known as forested wetland specialists. In other words, they like swamps. They’re much more common in southeastern Virginia and Lousiana, as this map shows. No wonder Hiss was excited to spot one so close to the creature comforts of Washington.

Many people, in fact, call the bird a “swamp warbler.” Just as a cardinal gets its name from the red worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, the prothonotary warbler gets its name from a church office whose members are known for their yellow garments.

“Prothonotary warblers tend to live where people don’t like to go, in swamps where water moccasins swim around,” says Hoover. “But they’re also relatively fearless of people. If you’re in their habitat, you can make a ‘pishing’ sound and a male will come within a few feet of you to investigate.”

The question of the prothonotary warbler’s habitat is a pressing one, because data suggest that the bird is in decline. “It’s not endangered, but it’s on its way,” says Blem, who has monitored the bird for decades. The Breeding Bird Survey indicates a population loss of 1.3 percent annually between 1966 and 2005.

“Across the United States, this species has declined significantly,” says Bridget Stutchbury, a biologist at York University in Toronto and the author of the forthcoming Silence of the Songbirds: How We Are Losing the World’s Songbirds and What We Can Do to Save Them.

Conservatives, of all people, should take a special interest in these little freedom fighters. The good news is that the decline of the prothonotary warbler isn’t consistent: In some areas, its numbers are actually growing, as this map shows.

“Nobody knows for sure what’s going on,” says Blem. He mentions the breakup of their North American habitat, the loss of their winter homes, and the incursion of predators such as the cowbird as possible explanations.

Prothonotary warblers are doing especially well in Virginia, thanks in part to the efforts of Blem and others who have built hundreds of nesting boxes for them. “They’re just like bluebird boxes, only a little smaller,” says Blem.

Prothonotary warblers like to nest in tree cavities — they won’t actually hollow them out, but will look for them where they occur naturally. Yet they seem to prefer manmade boxes. “The ideal location for one is on the top of a pole, about two to five feet above water,” says Blem. This appears to keep the birds safe from common predators such as raccoons and tree-climbing snakes. In a good year, a pair will produce a couple of batches of offspring.

If you want to see a prothonotary warbler right now, says Blem, then make your way to Deep Bottom Park in Virginia, a little east of Richmond: “That might be the best place in America to spot them. Go to the canoe launch. You’ll hear them and see them immediately. They’re not the greatest songbirds, but they’re very colorful.”

The birds are most active from the first part of April until about the middle of June. Sometimes they’re seen as late as the end of July.

Looking for something to do on May Day? Try a visit to Deep Bottom Park. You never know who else you’ll find there, admiring the wildlife.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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