Living Bird Magazine
Prothonotary WarblerProtonotaria citrea
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Parulidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Reinita Protonotaria (Spanish)
- Paruline orangée (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- Most warblers nest either on the ground, in shrubs, or in trees, but the Prothonotary Warbler and the Lucy's Warbler build their nests in holes in standing dead trees. They may also use nest boxes when available.
- The Prothonotary Warbler got its name from the bright yellow robes worn by papal clerks, known as prothonotaries, in the Roman Catholic church.
- The Prothonotary Warbler had its day in court during the Cold War. In 1948 Alger Hiss an American government official was accused of being a soviet spy. Part of the trial hinged on whether Hiss knew Whittaker Chambers, a former member of the U.S. Communist Party. Chambers claimed that he talked to Hiss about watching birds and reported Hiss's excitement about seeing a Prothonotary Warbler on the Potomac River. This bird sighting linked the two people and eventually led to Hiss's sentence and to the rise of Richard Nixon to political power.
- For Prothonotary Warblers it pays to be bright. Males that are brighter yellow gain access to better nest sites than less colorful males, according to a study conducted in Louisiana.
- The oldest recorded Prothonotary Warbler was a male, and at least 8 years, 1 month old when he was identified by his band in Ontario in 2005. He had been banded in the same area in 1999.