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Yellow Warbler

Setophaga petechia ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

North America has more than 50 species of warblers, but few combine brilliant color and easy viewing quite like the Yellow Warbler. In summer, the buttery yellow males sing their sweet whistled song from willows, wet thickets, and roadsides across almost all of North America. The females and immatures aren’t as bright, and lack the male’s rich chestnut streaking, but their overall warm yellow tones, unmarked faces, and prominent black eyes help pick them out.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.1 in
12–13 cm
Wingspan
6.3–7.9 in
16–20 cm
Weight
0.3–0.4 oz
9–11 g
Relative Size
About the same size as a Yellow-rumped Warbler; slightly larger than an American Goldfinch.
Other Names
  • Fauvette jaune, Paruline jaune (French)
  • Chipe amarillo, Verdín amarillo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • In addition to the migratory form of the Yellow Warbler that breeds in North America, several other resident forms can be found in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Males in these populations can have chestnut caps or even chestnut covering the entire head.
  • The nests of the Yellow Warbler are frequently parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird. The warbler often builds a new nest directly on top of the parasitized one, sometimes resulting in nests with up to six tiers.
  • Life can be dangerous for a small bird. Yellow Warblers have occasionally been found caught in the strands of an orb weaver spider’s web.
  • The oldest-known Yellow Warbler was banded in New York in 2001 and then caught again (and re-released) in 2011, also in New York. It was at least 11 years old at the time.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Yellow Warblers spend the breeding season in thickets and other disturbed or regrowing habitats, particularly along streams and wetlands. They are often found among willows but also live in dwarf birch stands in the tundra, among aspen trees in the Rockies, and along the edges of fields in the East, where you may find them among alder or dogwood as well as orchards, blueberry bogs, and overgrown power-line cuts. In the West they may occur up to about 9,000 feet elevation. On their wintering grounds Yellow Warblers live in mangrove forests, dry scrub, marshes, and forests, typically in lowlands but occasionally up to 8,500 feet elevation.

Food


Insects

Yellow Warblers eat mostly insects that they pick from foliage or capture on short flights or while hovering to reach leaves. Typical prey include midges, caterpillars, beetles, leafhoppers and other bugs, and wasps.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.8 in
1.5–2.1 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.2–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
10–13 days
Nestling Period
9–12 days
Egg Description
Grayish or greenish white with dark spots.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with light-gray down, weighing about 1/20 of an ounce.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest over a period of about 4 days. First she builds a cup of grasses, bark strips, and plants such as nettles. She places plant fibers, spiderwebs, and plant down around the outside. The inner cup is lined with deer hair, feathers, and fibers from cottonwood, dandelion, willow, and cattail seeds. If a cowbird lays its eggs in a Yellow Warbler’s nest, the warbler often begins building a new nest directly on top of the old one, abandoning both its own eggs and the cowbird’s.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Yellow Warblers build their nests in the vertical fork of a bush or small tree such as willow, hawthorn, raspberry, white cedar, dogwood, and honeysuckle. The nest is typically within about 10 feet of the ground but occasionally up to about 40 feet.

Yellow Warbler Nest Image 1
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Yellow Warbler Nest Image 2
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Yellow Warblers forage along slender branches of shrubs and small trees, picking off insect prey as they go or briefly hovering to get at prey on leaves. Singing males perch near the tops of the bushes or trees in their territory. As male Yellow Warblers are setting up territories they may perform a “circle flight” in which they fly toward a neighboring male or female in a horizontal, semicircular path. A male may also fly slowly with fast, exaggerated wingbeats away from a female he is courting or a male he is competing with. As these territorial encounters proceed, males start by singing at each other; as the dispute goes on, the songs get quieter or switch to chip notes as the males begin to chase each other. Yellow Warblers typically form monogamous pairs that sometimes last more than one breeding season and reform the next. Yellow Warblers defend their nesting territories from many species, including other warbler species, chickadees, House Wrens, blackbirds, and Eastern Kingbirds. They may even chase off other warbler species while on their wintering grounds. Common predators of Yellow Warbler nests include garter snakes, red squirrels, jays, crows, raccoons, weasels, skunks, and domestic or feral cats.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Yellow Warblers are one of the most numerous warblers in North America but their populations have been slowly declining since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 90 million with 37 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 15 percent in Mexico, and 57 percent breeding in Canada. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. In the western U.S. the grazing of rangelands can degrade Yellow Warbler nesting habitat, particularly stands of willow trees along creeks. The Brown-headed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of many species including Yellow Warblers, and this can reduce their breeding success. Like many migratory songbirds that move at night, Yellow Warblers can be attracted to and killed at tall, lighted structures such as TV towers and tall buildings.

Credits

Range Map Help

Yellow Warbler Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long distance migrant. Yellow Warblers breed across central and northern North America and spend winters in Central America and northern South America. They migrate earlier than most other warblers in both spring and fall. Like many other migrating songbirds, Yellow Warblers from eastern North America fly across the Gulf of Mexico in a single nonstop journey; some Yellow Warblers in fall take an overland route around the Gulf.

Backyard Tips

Yellow Warblers eat mostly insects, so they don’t come to backyard feeders. Larger yards that have small trees or are near streams may provide nesting habitat for these birds.

Find This Bird

Listen for Yellow Warblers singing when you’re in wet woods, thickets, or streamsides—they’re one of the most commonly heard warblers in spring and summer. Their song isn’t hard to learn—a tumbling series of whistles that sounds like sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet. Look for them in the tops of willows and other small trees.