Warblers, perhaps more than other groups of birds in North America, are blessed with some pretty cryptic names. For every clear-cut Yellow-throated and Black-throated Blue, there’s Blackburnian, Prothonotary, and Parula; names that, without a fair bit of etymological interest on the part of the birder, are likely to remain completely unknown. That’s why the Black-and-White Warbler is so refreshing. What you read is exactly what you get. There are no superfluous bits of color here. No ill-informed geographic indicator (Connecticut) or bizarre habitat affiliation (Prairie). This, friends, is a Black-and-White Warbler. It is a warbler that is black and white. QED.
That does not mean that this is a warbler held in less regard that it’s rainbow-hued familiars. It’s less overt than others, sure, but clean and clear, even in the fall when so many other warblers are seen as if through astigmatic eyes. This species is a stunner in its own way, particularly the racing striped males. So many of the Black-and-Whites I see in the fall are females or first year birds. Nice and all, but missing the dapper little mask and the streaky throats they look like they’re half finished. So when one of those fully toasted males shows up, well, that’s reason enough to stop and have a good look.
Black-and-White is a warbler, that much is clear, but certainly a different sort of warbler. Not apt to perch and preen through the canopy like the rest of the bunch, these birds are creepers. Crawling along the trunks and branches of hardwoods like a nuthatch. This behavior is so unique that for the longest time early ornithologists were reluctant to categorize it with the dainty little tree dancers calling it, instead, Small Black and White Creeper, and placing it taxonomically with those nuthatches that it superficially resembles.
It’s interesting, then, that the Black-and-White Warbler’s scientific name has been in use longer than its common one. And for a family like Parulidae, whose taxonomy and latin names seen to shift every single year, that’s a notable thing. The name, Mniotilta varia, is a mouthful, but is perfectly descriptive in the same way that its common name is matter-of-fact.
Varia is derived form the Latin “varius”, with an obvious enough meaning. The streaking is as variegated and diverse as you could ever hope. It’s with the first part where things get interesting. Black-and-White is the sole member of the genus Mniotilta, a bizarre word with a double consonant beginning that gets lodged in your throat. It’s a compound, the first odd half coming from the Greek “mnion”, meaning, of all things, seaweed. This was eventually translated by the French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot as moss, which makes more sense for this terrestrial bird who favors tree trunks.
The second part is also Greek, derived from the work “tillo”, meaning to pluck. So Mniotilta is a moss-picker, an evocative name if there ever was one.
Black-and-Whites are hardy warblers, able to pluck hibernating bugs tucked into the bark of hardwood trees of which its fellow warblers are unable to take advantage. As such, they tend to be one of the latest warblers to leave in the southeast, with a handful even sticking it out throughout the winter, mostly closer to the coast where the weather is milder but occasionally as far inland as the Piedmont too. Any time of year, though, it’s a ray of monochromatic sunshine.