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Black-and-white Warbler

Mniotilta varia ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

One of the earliest-arriving migrant warblers, the Black-and-white Warbler’s thin, squeaky song is one of the first signs that spring birding has sprung. This crisply striped bundle of black and white feathers creeps along tree trunks and branches like a nimble nuthatch, probing the bark for insects with its slightly downcurved bill. Though you typically see these birds only in trees, they build their little cup-shaped nests in the leaf litter of forests across central and eastern North America.

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Keys to identification Help

Warblers
Warblers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Black-and-white Warblers are medium-sized warblers (small songbirds). They have a fairly long, slightly downcurved bill. The head often appears somewhat flat and streamlined, with a short neck. The wings are long and the tail is short.

  • Color Pattern

    These birds are boldly striped in black and white. Their black wings are highlighted by two wide, white wing bars. Adult males have more obvious black streaking, particularly on the underparts and the cheek. Females (especially immatures) are paler, with less streaking and usually a wash of buff on the flanks. The undertail coverts have distinctive large black spots.

  • Behavior

    Black-and-white Warblers act more like nuthatches than warblers, foraging for hidden insects in the bark of trees by creeping up, down, and around branches and trunks. Despite their arboreal foraging habits, they nest on the ground at the bases of trees.

  • Habitat

    Deciduous forest and mixed forest are the preferred summer habitats of Black-and-white Warblers, usually with trees of mixed ages that provide a variety of foraging substrates. On migration, look for them in any forest or woodlot. They winter in forests and forest edges from Florida to Colombia.

Range Map Help

Black-and-white Warbler Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Male

    Black-and-white Warbler

    Male
    • Distinctive, boldly-patterned warbler
    • Almost always seen clinging to tree trunks and branches, creeping like a nuthatch
    • Male shows black ear patches and black streaking on throat
    • © Andy Jordan, San Bernard NWR, Brazoria, Texas, January 2012
  • Male

    Black-and-white Warbler

    Male
    • Boldly patterned warbler with long, decurved bill
    • Creeps like a nuthatch on tree trunks and branches
    • Male has black ear patches and streaking on throat
    • © JMK Birder, Tolland, Connecticut, May 2010
  •  

    Black-and-white Warbler

     
    • Distinctive contrasting pattern overall
    • Long, pointed bill
    • Creeps like a nuthatch on tree trunks and branches
    • Female/juveniles paler on face and throat than adult male
    • © Linda Peterson, Iowa, August 2012

Similar Species

  • Breeding male

    Blackpoll Warbler

    Breeding male
    • Stockier than Black-and-white Warbler with shorter, thicker bill
    • Solid black cap contrasts with white cheek patches
    • Plain, unmarked white belly and breast
    • Forages more like a typical warbler instead of creeping like a nuthatch
    • © Guy Lichter, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, May 2011

Similar Species

Blackpoll Warblers, particularly breeding-plumaged adult males, closely resemble Black-and-white Warbler. Look for the Blackpoll’s solid black cap and contrasting clean white cheek patch. Breeding-plumage Blackpolls also have bright-orange legs and clean white undertail coverts. Yellow-throated Warblers also creep along branches, but they have bright-yellow throats and chests, and clean white undertail coverts. Brown Creepers are smaller, with longer tails that they prop against the tree for support. Creepers have very fine, downcurved bills and are patterned in brown and tan rather than black and white.

Find This Bird

Black-and-white Warblers are fairly common and often intent on foraging along tree limbs, so they don’t tend to be shy. Watch for them creeping fairly rapidly on, around, and under larger branches of taller trees. Black-and-white Warblers are also quite vocal. Their song is thin, almost squeaky, but penetrating, so it’s a good way to find them. Watch for them during migration (especially early in the season): at least one or two are typically found in any reasonably good arrival of migrant warblers.

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