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    Prothonotary Warbler Life History


    Habitat ForestsProthonotary Warblers breed in flooded bottomland forests, wooded swamps, and forests near lakes and streams. They tend to avoid forest patches smaller than about 250 acres or forest borders less than 100 feet wide. During migration they stop in coastal areas, marshes, citrus groves, and scrub to refuel. During the winter, they are most common in mangrove swamps, but they also use tropical dry forest and wooded areas near streams.Back to top


    Food InsectsProthonotary Warblers eat spiders, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, caterpillars, mayflies, midges, grasshoppers, ants, and leafhoppers. They also eat snails and mollusks. During the nonbreeding season they eat fruit and seeds in addition to insects. Back to top


    Nest Placement

    Nest CavityThe Prothonotary Warbler places its nest in holes created by woodpeckers and chickadees, in natural holes in standing dead trees, and in nest boxes. The male selects several nesting sites throughout his territory, but the female ultimately selects which one to use. Nests are often near or over standing water in bald cypress, willows, cypress knees, and sweetgum trees. Nest height ranges from about 2–33 feet above the ground, depending on availability of nesting holes.

    Nest Description

    The male places moss inside the hole prior to attracting a mate, but the female builds the remainder of the nest with rootlets, plant down, grape plants, or cypress bark. She lines the cup-shaped nest with grasses, sedges, rootlets, old leaves, and poison ivy tendrils. It takes the female 3–8 days to build a nest. The entrance hole to the nest cavity is around 2 inches across. The nest cup is about 2 inches wide.

    Nesting Facts
    Clutch Size:3-7 eggs
    Number of Broods:1-3 broods
    Egg Length:0.7-0.8 in (1.8-1.9 cm)
    Egg Width:0.6-0.6 in (1.4-1.5 cm)
    Incubation Period:12-14 days
    Nestling Period:9-10 days
    Egg Description:White spotted with rust-brown to lavender.
    Condition at Hatching:Helpless, eyes closed, with minimal down.
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    Behavior Foliage GleanerProthonotary Warblers forage in the understory, slowly hopping along branches, twigs, and on the ground in search of food. Sometimes they climb up tree trunks and pick insects off the bark similar to the way a Black-and-White Warbler forages. When the male establishes his territory he searches for potential nesting sites in standing dead trees and places a layer of moss in each hole. He selects a few good spots and displays in front of each site for the female. He flies slowly up above the tree canopy with tail spread and slowly flutters back down. To entice the female to check out potential nesting sites, he enters and exits the hole several times. As soon as the female selects a site, she starts building a nest. On the breeding grounds males and females aggressively defend their territories, chasing away intruders with snaps of their bills and sometimes with physical attacks. They are monogamous and maintain their bonds during the breeding season. Occasionally they stay with the same mate the following season. They also tend to return to the same breeding site in subsequent years, especially if they successfully raised offspring at that site. Raccoons and snakes are frequent nest predators. Brown-headed Cowbirds also affect nest success. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of Prothonotary Warblers, forcing the warblers to raise cowbird young at the expense of their own. They are not territorial on the wintering grounds and in some locations they make short-distance movements to take advantage of seasonal resources. Groups of Prothonotary Warblers forage together on the wintering grounds and they also join mixed feeding flocks. Back to top


    Conservation DecliningProthonotary Warblers are uncommon to fairly common in good habitat. Their populations declined over 1% per year from 1966–2015, resulting in a cumulative loss of 42% over that period, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.6 million, with 100% of the population spending at least part of the year in the United States, and 26% wintering in Mexico. There are some reports of the species breeding in southern Canada, and many birds winter farther south in Central and South America. The species rates a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. As habitat specialists, these warblers are vulnerable to the loss and alteration of forested wetlands on their breeding grounds. Removal of standing dead trees and channeling of streams can affect availability of nest sites as well as nest success. Nests above standing water greater than 11 inches deep were less likely to be depredated by raccoons than those in shallower areas. Prothonotary Warblers are also vulnerable to the loss of mangroves on their wintering grounds along the coast of Mexico and Central and South America due to coastal development and aquaculture. Installation of nest boxes with predator guards and restoration of natural flood regimes to forested wetlands on the breeding grounds have been successful at increasing local populations. Back to top

    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.

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    Curson, J., D. Quinn and D. Beadle. 1994. Warblers of the Americas: an identification guide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

    Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

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

    Petit, Lisa J. 1999. Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

    Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon and W. A. Link. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2015 (Version 2.07.2017). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center 2017.

    Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

    Stephenson, Tom and Scott Whittle. 2013. The Warbler Guide: Princeton University Press.

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