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Cerulean Blues

“In my opinion, there’s not a more beautiful bird than the cerulean warbler anywhere in the world—and no other habitat as diverse and spectacular (and underappreciated) as an Appalachian hardwood forest.”
—Katie Fallon, Author of Cerulean Blues

By Rodney Bartgis

Among the natural treasures of West Virginia are wood warblers. Variously adorned in yellows, oranges, blues, blacks, whites, greens, browns, and reds, these small insect-eating birds fill the trees each spring and summer with bustling and singing. In her new book, Cerulean Blues, Nature Conservancy member and Morgantown writer Katie Fallon explores the plight of a songbird closely aligned with the Central Appalachians—the cerulean warbler.

Katie’s travels take her across the hills, hollows and forests of the Central Appalachians—the last stronghold of this vanishing species—to learn about the bird’s behavior, habitat and status. Many of the places to which she ventures are familiar to us: Coopers Rock and Kanawha State Forests and Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area. And many of the people she encounters— like wildlife biologist Petra Wood—are West Virginians. Along her journey, Katie reveals why the bird’s numbers have declined by nearly 80 percent over the last 40 years.

Ceruleans need unbroken stretches of forestland with large trees and occasional canopy breaks—such as when an old tree dies. Today, fragmentation from development and mountaintop removal is common across much of the bird’s historic range inside of the Appalachians, and existing forests are too uniform for the bird’s needs. Similar problems exist for ceruleans where they spend their winters in the forested mountain areas of South America. Here, coffee is king, and in places like Colombia less than 40 percent of the warblers’ natural habitat remains.

In telling the story of the cerulean, Katie is able to shine a spotlight on our own fate, which is also inextricably tied to the health of the forest. But in uplifting moments she shares with readers stories of hope, such as an Andean town’s migratory bird festival, complete with parading children dressed up as cerulean warblers.

The Nature Conservancy, too, brings hope to this story; its forest conservation efforts from the Central Appalachians along the bird’s migratory route and down into South America are helping to protect the cerulean from vanishing for good.

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