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Prothonotary Warbler

Protonotaria citrea ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The brilliant Prothonotary Warbler bounces along branches like a golden flashlight in the dim understory of swampy woodlands. This golden ray of light is unique among warblers with its beady black eye and blue-gray wings. It is also one of two warblers that build their nests in holes in standing dead trees. Often called a "swamp warbler" in the southeast, it also occurs surprisingly far to the north along rivers. Its population is declining, due to loss of forested wetlands in the U.S. and mangroves on its wintering grounds.

Keys to identification Help

Warblers
Warblers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Prothonotary Warbler is a large, heavy-bodied warbler with a big head and bill. It has shorter legs and a shorter tail than other warblers. Its bill is heavier and longer than most warblers.

  • Color Pattern

    The Prothonotary Warbler is bright golden yellow with blue-gray wings and tail and a yellow-olive back. Its beady black eye stands out on its solid yellow face. Seen from below, it has white under the tail. Females are often paler yellow than males.

  • Behavior

    This warbler often forages above standing or slow-moving water. It slowly hops along branches, twigs, and along fallen trees, keeping fairly low or actually dropping to the ground in search of food. It flies between trees and shrubs with heavy wingbeats in an undulating pattern.

  • Habitat

    Prothonotary Warblers breed in wooded swamps, flooded bottomland forests, and wooded areas near streams and lakes. These forests are often flat and shady with standing dead trees that have old woodpecker and chickadee holes for nesting.

Range Map Help

Prothonotary Warbler Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult male
    • Bright golden-yellow head and breast
    • Blue-gray wings and tail
    • Green shoulders and back
    • Long, pointed black bill
    • Large black eyes
    • © Laura Meyers, NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx, New York, April 2011
  • Adult male

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult male
    • Breeds in tree cavities
    • Solid, golden-yellow head and breast
    • Long, pointed black bill
    • Prominent black eyes
    • © Tim Lenz, Ottawa County, Ohio, June 2010
  • Adult female

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult female
    • Yellow face and breast
    • Dull greenish-yellow crown and back
    • Gray wings
    • White undertail
    • Long, pointed black bill
    • © Danny Bales, Lori Wilson Park, Cocoa Beach, Florida, April 2009
  • Adult male

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult male
    • Solid, bright yellow head and underparts
    • Green shoulders and blue-gray wings
    • White undertail
    • Prominent black eyes
    • © Andy Johnson, Magee Marsh, Crane Creek State Park, Ohio, May 2010
  • Adult female

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult female
    • Greenish yellow face and breast
    • Dull olive-green crown and back
    • Gray wings
    • Long black bill
    • © Beth Graham, Parvin State Park, New Jersey, June 2008
  • Adult male

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult male
    • Large white patches on tail-feathers with dark gray tips
    • Golden-yellow underparts
    • Pointed black bill
    • © Greg Page, Eagle Creek, Indiana, April 2009
  • Adult male

    Prothonotary Warbler

    Adult male
    • Solid golden yellow head and underparts
    • Green back and blue-gray wings
    • Black eyes stand out prominently on yellow face
    • © Laura Erickson, Magee Marsh, Ohio, May 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

Prothonotary Warblers are distinctive: larger and with a larger bill than essentially any other similar-looking warbler. Yellow Warblers are entirely yellow, without the blue-gray wings of a Prothonotary Warbler. Blue-winged Warblers have 2 white wingbars and a black line through the eye that Prothonotaries lack. Blue-winged Warblers are also more likely to occur in dry scrubby habitat during the breeding season than in the swamps and wet woods where Prothonotaries live.

Backyard Tips

If you live in the Southeast near forested wetlands or water a nest box may attract a breeding pair. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our All About Birdhouses site, including plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size for a Prothonotary Warbler.

Find This Bird

Finding a Prothonotary Warbler means finding the right habitat. They’re most numerous in the Southeast, where you may find them in swamps and bottomland forests. But they also use forests along rivers such as the Mississippi, so they occur farther north than you might expect in Wisconsin and all the way north to New Hampshire along other rivers. Once you find the right spot, head towards water and start looking for a bright yellow bird in the understory. They tend to stay low in the forest and often forage above water and along shorelines. These bright yellow birds are conspicuous, and their loud ringing song can help guide you to them even before you see them. The best times to look for them in the U.S. are from April–July.

You Might Also Like

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How To Listen To Bird Song—Tips And Examples From The Warbler Guide, All About Birds, May 1, 2015.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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