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Common Yellowthroat

Geothlypis trichas ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A broad black mask lends a touch of highwayman’s mystique to the male Common Yellowthroat. Look for these furtive, yellow-and-olive warblers skulking through tangled vegetation, often at the edges of marshes and wetlands. Females lack the mask and are much browner, though they usually show a hint of warm yellow at the throat. Yellowthroats are vocal birds, and both their witchety-witchety-witchety songs and distinctive call notes help reveal the presence of this, one of our most numerous warblers.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.3–5.1 in
11–13 cm
Wingspan
5.9–7.5 in
15–19 cm
Weight
0.3–0.4 oz
9–10 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Yellow-breasted Chat; larger than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Other Names
  • Paruline masquée (French)
  • Mascarita común, Reinita gargan tiamarilla, Caretica, Cigüita enmascarada, Reinita pica tierra (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Common Yellowthroat was one of the first bird species to be catalogued from the New World, when a specimen from Maryland was described by Linnaeus in 1766.
  • Adult Common Yellowthroats sometimes fall prey to carnivorous birds such as Merlins and Loggerhead Shrikes. Occasionally they have more unexpected predators: one migrating yellowthroat was eaten by a Chuck-will's-widow, while another was found in the stomach of a largemouth bass.
  • Each male normally has only one mate in his territory during a breeding season. However, a female’s mating calls often attract other males, and she may mate with them behind her mate’s back.
  • One subspecies of Common Yellowthroat is a year-round resident in the Rio Grande river delta in Texas. These yellowthroats are not only territorial among themselves, but they also keep migrant yellowthroats of other races completely out of their habitat.
  • Brown-headed Cowbirds often lay their eggs in the nests of Common Yellowthroats (and many other songbird species). This is called brood parasitism, and it’s detrimental to the yellowthroats, so they’ve developed a few defenses. They desert a nest if it contains a cowbird egg, or if their own eggs have been removed or damaged by a visiting cowbird. They may build a second or even a third nest on top of a parasitized nest.
  • The oldest Common Yellowthroat on record was 11 years, 6 months old.

Habitat


Scrub

Common Yellowthroats live in thick, tangled vegetation in a wide range of habitats—from wetlands to prairies to pine forests—across North America. Their breeding range stretches across most of the United States, the Canadian provinces, and western Mexico. Yellowthroats are most common in wet areas, which tend to have dense vegetation low to the ground, ideal for skulking and building hidden nests. But they are also found in dry upland pine forests, palmetto thickets, drainage ditches, hedgerows, orchards, fields, burned-over oak forests, shrub-covered hillsides, river edges, and disturbed sites. They winter in similar habitats with dense vegetation in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Food


Insects

Common Yellowthroats forage on or near the ground, eating insects and spiders from leaves, bark, branches, flowers, or fruit in low vegetation. Their diet includes bugs, flies, beetles, ants, termites, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, dragonflies, damselflies, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, and other larvae. Though they mostly glean their food while perched, they may sally out from a perch to catch prey. Like many birds, Common Yellowthroats also eat grit, which possibly helps them digest food or adds minerals to their diet.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.8 in
1.5–2 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.2–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
12 days
Nestling Period
12 days
Egg Description
White with markings of gray, lilac, reddish-brown, or black.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with dark orange skin and wisps of grayish down.
Nest Description

The female builds her well-concealed nest in 4-5 days (sometimes 2-3 days later in the season). She starts by building a platform of grasses and leaves and gradually weaves a loose, bulky outer cup of grasses and sedges. She adds smaller materials toward the center, sometimes in distinct layers. The outside of the nest averages 3.5 inches wide and 3 inches deep, while the inner cup averages 2.2 inches wide and 1.8 inches deep. Sometimes a Common Yellowthroat nest has a roof, like the nest of an Ovenbird.

Nest Placement

Shrub

The female selects a nest site, which is usually on or near the ground and supported by sedges, grasses, reeds, cattails, briars, skunk cabbage, or other low plants. Nests in marshy areas are usually higher off the ground, where they are safer from flooding. On rare occasions the female may build in vegetation growing out of the water.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Males arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories, fighting more intensely when the females arrive. The black mask is an important signal in male fighting: when researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female, males started attacking the stuffed bird, as if it were a male rival. Eventually, a male pairs up with a female and begins following her closely until she signals that she’s ready to mate, by fluttering her wings and giving a fast series of chips. This display also attracts other males, which may mate with the female behind her mate’s back. The females themselves may defend their territories against other females. Once the nestlings hatch and the parents are busy feeding the young brood, they relax their territorial defense. Nest predators include snakes, mice, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, and possums, while adult yellowthroats are sometimes prey for Loggerhead Shrikes, Northern Harriers, Merlins, and American Kestrels. On wintering grounds, Common Yellowthroats may forage in mixed-species flocks but are usually solitary.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Common Yellowthroats are numerous but they have been gradually declining by almost 1 percent per year since 1966, resulting in a cumulative decline of about 33 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 87 million with 54 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 58 percent in Mexico, and 41 percent breeding in Canada. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Two sedentary populations have declined sharply from habitat degradation: one subspecies in the San Francisco Bay region dropped 80-95 percent in the past century; another, in Brownsville, Texas, fell so far that it was thought extinct. Both populations remain at risk, largely from wetland degradation and conversion to agricultural and urban landscapes. Rangewide, yellowthroats probably suffer most from habitat degradation and loss. Because they are insectivores and often live in wetlands, they are also susceptible to poor water quality and to pesticides and other pollutants. Common Yellowthroats are not the focus of any management efforts, but they probably benefit indirectly from efforts used for other species, such as waterfowl.

Credits

Range Map Help

Common Yellowthroat Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. Most populations migrate; some go short distances and others journey all the way from northern Canada to Central America. Some populations in the southern United States and Mexico stay in place year-round. Many individuals that winter in Central America fly across the Gulf of Mexico on their way north in the spring.

Backyard Tips

Your yard could attract Common Yellowthroats if it is fairly large (yellowthroat territories are sometimes as small as 0.5 acre) and features dense or tangled, low-growing grasses and other vegetation.

Find This Bird

Common Yellowthroats are easy to find during spring and summer in much of North America. Just visit open habitats such as marshes, wetland edges, and brushy fields. Listen for the male’s wichety-wichety-wichety song, which they sing frequently during summer, and is easy to recognize. Even their call notes are distinctive, so listen for their husky, low chuck coming from the undergrowth. When you hear one calling, look low in bushes and trees for a quick, small bird, olive above and yellow below. If you don’t spot one after a while, try making a “pishing” sound; yellowthroats are inquisitive birds and often pop into the open to see who’s making the sound.

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