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Palm Warbler

Setophaga palmarum ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A warbler that doesn’t act like one, the Palm Warbler spends its time walking on the ground, wagging its tail up and down. This brownish-olive bird has a bright rusty cap and a bold pale eyebrow stripe. They breed mainly in Canada’s boreal forest, but most people see them during migration or on wintering grounds foraging in open areas. You may see two forms: an eastern subspecies that’s bright yellow below, and a more western subspecies with a pale belly.

Keys to identification Help

Warblers
Warblers
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Palm Warblers are small songbirds, but they are on the larger side for a warbler and have a fuller looking belly. Their posture is more upright than a typical warbler and more like a pipit—especially noticeable when they are on the ground. Their tails and legs are longer than most warblers contributing to the pipitlike shape.

  • Color Pattern

    Palm Warblers are dull brownish-olive above with yellow under the tail and throat. The outside corners of their tails flash white in flight. In eastern birds the belly is yellow, while in western birds the belly is white. Sexes are similar, and during the breeding season they have a rusty cap and some rusty streaking on the belly. Nonbreeding birds have paler yellow undertails and a dull brown crown.

  • Behavior

    This is one bird where behavior—this bird’s near-constant tail-wagging—can help confirm its identity. They mainly forage on open ground or in low vegetation, rather than in forest canopy as many warblers do (although they do sing from high perches in trees and shrubs).

  • Habitat

    During migration and winter Palm Warblers use weedy fields, forest edges, fence rows, and other areas with scattered trees and shrubs. They breed in the boreal forest of the far north, where they use bogs with scattered evergreen trees and thick ground cover.

Range Map Help

Palm Warbler Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

Few other warblers look or act like Palm Warblers, with their rusty cap, broad eyebrow stripe, and habit of wagging their tails. Prairie Warblers lack the rusty cap, strong eyebrow stripe, and brownish back of Palm Warbler. Cape May Warblers are grayish above (not brown) with white (not yellow) under the tail and without the Palm’s broad eyebrow. Yellow-rumped Warblers have yellow on the rump (above the tail) not under the tail as in Palm Warblers. A few other species, including Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Waterthrush, and American Pipit, forage on the ground and wag or pump their tails, but they are plainer, streakier birds without the yellow tones of Palm Warbler.

Regional Differences

Plumage of Palm Warblers is different on either side of James Bay which lies between Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Palm Warblers east of James Bay (“Yellow” Palm Warblers) have entirely yellow underparts with stronger rusty streaks on the breast and yellow eyebrows. Those west of James Bay (“Western” Palm Warblers) have whitish bellies, yellow undertails, and pale eyebrows. During the breeding season, “Western” Palm Warblers also have a yellow throat with some rusty streaks on the breast. "Western" Palm Warblers winter primarily in the Caribbean while "Yellow" Palm Warblers winter primarily along the Gulf Coast, but the two subspecies mix in the southeastern United States.

Backyard Tips

Create a bird friendly backyard for migrating or wintering Palm Warblers by planting native plants. Learn more about birdscaping at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Unless you live in Canada, spring, fall, and winter are your best times to see Palm Warblers. They spend the winters in the Caribbean and in a narrow strip along the southeastern United States and occasionally along the West Coast. They're a fairly common early migrant across much of the East, reaching New England by mid-to-late April. They start slowly heading south in late August. Weedy fields, forest edges, and scrubby areas are great places to look for them during migration and winter. Look through groups of birds foraging on the ground—they’re often with sparrows, juncos, and Yellow-rumped Warblers—so watch for their characteristic tail wagging to pull them out of the crowd. They also forage in low shrubs and isolated trees in open areas, where they sometimes sally out for insects like a flycatcher. Palm Warblers typically aren't skittish, so if you find one, you should have enough time to get a good look.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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