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The Unsung Hero of the Cold War
The conservative movement's official bird isn't a hawk.

By John J. Miller


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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.

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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.

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