Living Bird Magazine
Wilson's WarblerCardellina pusilla
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Parulidae
Wilson’s Warblers dance around willow and alder thickets, often near water, to the rapid beat of their chattering song. This bright yellow warbler with a black cap is one of the smallest warblers in the U.S. and among the most recognizable. They rarely slow down, dashing between shrubs, grabbing insects from one leaf after another, and popping up on low perches to sing. Wilson's Warblers breed in mountains and northern forests, but pass through every state in the lower 48 during migration—so be on the lookout when they are on the move in the spring and fall.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Wilson’s Warblers breed mainly in the far north, so for many people they're easiest to find during migration. Spring can be the best time, as males often sing during migration. Look for them in shrubby tangles along streams or ponds or even forested edges and take a moment to listen for their rapid song. Unlike most warblers, they tend to forage at lower levels which makes finding them easier; no neck craning needed. The only real challenge is getting them in your binoculars. They don’t tend to stay still for long, so watch carefully and have your binoculars ready.
- Reinita de Wilson (Spanish)
- Paruline à calotte noire (French)
Wilson’s Warblers 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 Wilson’s Warblers 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.
- Cool Facts
- The majority of Wilson’s Warblers nest on the ground, except for populations in coastal California and Oregon where they nest up to 5 feet off the ground. These birds also tend to lay fewer eggs per nest compared to their ground-nesting relatives.
- The Wilson's Warbler is found in a large diversity of environments in the winter. It is the only migrant warbler regularly found in tropical high plains (paramo).
- Naturalist Alexander Wilson, often called the "father of American ornithology," described the Wilson’s Warbler in 1811 which he called the “green black-capt flycatcher.”
- When most songbird nestlings are ready to leave the nest, they hop out and don’t return to the nest, but some Wilson’s Warbler fledglings head back to the nest for a night or two after fledging.
- Wilson’s Warblers tend to be brighter yellow in the West and paler yellow in the East. Pacific Coast populations have the brightest yellow, almost orange, foreheads and faces. Rocky Mountain and Alaskan birds also tend to be slightly larger than the Eastern and Pacific Coast populations.
- During spring migration, Wilson’s Warblers en route to Alaska to breed are the last ones to pass through the southwestern U.S. Birds that eventually breed in coastal California pass through Arizona first, followed by birds headed to the Pacific Northwest and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and finally birds headed to Alaska. Read more about how scientists are using DNA to study Wilson's Warbler migration.
- For decades biologists grouped Wilson’s Warblers into three subspecies, but a recent genetic study indicates that there could be 6 distinct breeding groups of Wilson’s Warblers and these 6 groups tend to segregate on the wintering grounds. Birds breeding in eastern Canada spend the winter mostly in the Yucatan Peninsula, while those breeding in the Pacific Northwest, the Sierra Nevada, and coastal California spend the winter in Baja California Sur and along the west coast of Sinaloa, Mexico.
- The oldest recorded Wilson's Warbler was a male, and at least 8 years, 11 months, when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California in 2008. He had been banded in the same state in 2000.