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Northern Parula Life History


Habitat Forests

Northern Parulas breed in mature forests along streams, swamps, and other bottomlands. They're closely associated with mosses or lichens that grow on the branches of canopy trees. In the southern U.S. they use Spanish moss; farther north they use beard moss (a type of lichen). Key tree species include water, willow, and swamp chestnut oak, black gum, eastern hemlock, sugar and red maple, birches, and sycamore. On their tropical wintering grounds, parulas use many habitat types including fields, pastures, scrub, woodland, and coffee, cacao, and citrus plantations.

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Food Insects

Northern Parulas eat spiders and many kinds of insects, particularly caterpillars. They also eats beetles, moths, ants, wasps, bees, flies, locusts, and others. During the breeding season, they occasionally eat bud scales, and on wintering grounds they sometimes eat berries, seeds, or nectar.

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Nest Placement

Nest Tree

Nests are usually in a hanging clump of epiphytes like Spanish moss, beard moss, or lace lichen. They tend to be placed at the end of a branch and as high as 100 feet above the ground (making them difficult to study).

Nest Description

Females do most of the nest building, hollowing out a hanging mass of vegetation to create a side entrance and a cup. The cavity is lined with additional epiphytes or hair, fine grasses, or pine needles. Nests are about 3 inches across and 2 inches deep. Nest building takes about 4 days. Where Spanish moss or other epiphytes are absent, Northern Parulas may make hanging nests from other materials or place a nest inside river debris that has been trapped high in branches during a flood.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:0.6-0.7 in (1.5-1.8 cm)
Egg Width:0.5-0.5 in (1.2-1.3 cm)
Incubation Period:12-14 days
Nestling Period:10-11 days
Egg Description:

White to creamy-white, speckled with red, brown, purple, or gray.

Condition at Hatching:Helpless, eyes closed, with scant white down on head and back.
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Behavior Foliage Gleaner

Northern Parulas forage by gleaning leaves and branch tips for insects and spiders. They fly with rapid wingbeats and hop quickly through branches. When acting defensively, parulas may droop their wings, holding their wingtips below the base of the tail as they call. They tend to travel in pairs or alone on the breeding grounds, but form mixed-species flocks with other warblers during migration and on the wintering grounds.

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Conservation Low Concern

Northern Parulas are common and their populations have increased by 62% since 1970, according to Partners in Flight. The estimated global breeding population is 17 million individuals. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. Despite overall increases, populations are declining in certain regions according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. During the twentieth century, poor air quality in several northeastern states may have affected Northern Parulas by reducing mosses that they rely on for nesting. Clearcutting and the draining of bogs may have also impacted populations in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri.

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Backyard Tips

Northern Parulas do not visit feeders, but you can provide habitat for them in your yard by landscaping with native trees and shrubs. Creating a bird-friendly backyard for Northern Parulas even if they are not breeding in your area may help them out during migration. Head on over to Habitat Network to learn about which native species are good matches for your yard and more.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love (2016). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2016.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

Moldenhauer, Ralph R. and Daniel J. Regelski. (2012). Northern Parula (Setophaga americana), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Stephenson, T. and S. Whittle (2013). The Warbler Guide. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA.

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