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Wilson's Warbler

Cardellina pusilla ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

Keys to identification Help

Warblers
Warblers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Wilson’s Warblers are one of our smallest warblers. They have long, thin tails and small, thin bills. They appear rather round bodied and large headed for their size.

  • Color Pattern

    Wilson’s Warblers are bright yellow below and yellowish olive above. Their black eyes stand out on their yellow cheeks. Males have a distinctive black cap. Adult females are similar in color but show variations in the amount of black on the top of the head, from a few blackish feathers to a small dark cap. Juvenile females have an olive crown and a yellow eyebrow.

  • Behavior

    Wilson’s Warblers flit restlessly between perches and make direct flights with rapid wingbeats through the understory. Unlike most warblers, they spend most of their time in the understory grabbing insects by hovering or by picking insects from foliage.

  • Habitat

    Wilson’s Warblers breed in mountain meadows and thickets near streams, especially those with willows and alders. They also breed along the edges of lakes, bogs, and aspen stands. Pacific Coast populations breed in shrubby habitat and in young stands of conifers, alders, or maples. During migration they use woodlands, suburban areas, desert scrub, and shrubby areas near streams.

Range Map Help

Wilson
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Wilson's Warbler

    Adult male
    • Small warbler with thin bill
    • Black cap
    • Bright yellow below and yellowish olive above
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Yuba Pass, California, June 2010
  • Adult male

    Wilson's Warbler

    Adult male
    • Small warbler that appears round bodied and large headed for its size
    • Bright yellow below
    • Black cap
    • © Tim J. Hopwood, Kinbrook Island PP, Brooks, Alberta, Canada, September 2014
  • Female/immature

    Wilson's Warbler

    Female/immature
    • Small warbler with long thin tail
    • Olive-colored cap variable in size
    • Yellow eyebrow
    • © Bill Thompson, Sunderland (Franklin County), Massachusetts, November 2011
  • Adult

    Wilson's Warbler

    Adult
    • Small warbler that appears rather round bodied for its size
    • Black cap can vary in size and intensity
    • Bright yellow below and yellowish olive above
    • © Tim J. Hopwood, Confederation Park, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, September 2014
  • Male

    Wilson's Warbler

    Male
    • Small warbler
    • Black cap can vary in size and intensity
    • Bright yellow below and yellowish olive above
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Texas, September 2012
  • Adult Male

    Wilson's Warbler

    Adult Male
    • Small warbler with thin bill
    • Black cap
    • Bright yellow below and yellowish olive above
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Yuba Pass, California, June 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

Adult Wilson's Warblers—both male and female—show at least a partial black cap that is distinctive, although the amount of black on adult females varies from a few blackish feathers to a small dark cap. Young females can be more confusing, and may be mistaken for other species. Yellow Warblers are larger than Wilson's Warblers, with a larger bill and yellow edges to the wing feathers. They also lack the yellow eyebrow of young female Wilson’s Warblers. Yellow Warblers do not wag their tails as much as Wilson’s Warblers do. Immature and female Hooded Warblers have a yellow cheek patch surrounded by a darker olive head with a dark smudge in front of the eye. They flash white patches in the tail in flight and, sometimes, while perched. Orange-crowned Warblers have thinner and sharper bills than Wilson's, and are more olive and less yellow. Female Common Yellowthroat are mostly olive-brown, usually with a warmer yellow throat, compared to Wilson's uniform yellowish plumage.

Regional Differences

Western populations tend to be brighter yellow than Eastern populations.

Backyard Tips

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.

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.

Get Involved

Read more about landscaping with native plants to give warblers a helping hand.

Learn about creating bird friendly backyards at Habitat Network.

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