Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warblers stand out like a bright piece of golden light in the darkness of wet forests and woodland of swamps as they bounce from one branch to another. This golden ray they have around them is unique to this species of warblers.

About Prothonotary Warblers

The black eyes that give the impression of beads are the only thing that would make you aware it is a warbler in the first place.

Another rare quality of Prothonotary Warblers is that they fall among the two warblers that make their home in the dead trees’ cavities. Around southeast of North America, people even refer to them as swamp warblers. Yet, their range can extend as far as the rivers in the north.

Unfortunately, the population is on a decline due to mangroves becoming more common in what used to be their wintering ground. The rapid decrease in wetlands in the U.S does not help any either.

Belonging to the genus of Protonotaria, we will learn more about this new world species of warblers. This will include:

  • Prothonotary Warbler color pattern, size, behavior
  • Prothonotary Warbler habitat, range, and migration, lifecycle
  • Prothonotary Warbler diet, nesting, and anatomy

Prothonotary Warbler Color Pattern

This species of small songbird has one of the most striking colors you will see in a warbler. It is just a lot of yellow, an excessively bright, golden shade all over their plumage.

The Prothonotary Warblers have a yellow belly, face, and slightly more olive back in adult males. There is also a few light splashes of black color on the back. The wings are more grey, though the colors are relatively close to the black shade.

The under-tails have a bit of white in them. The bills are a proud black color. Again, for adult females, the yellow in their plumage dulls a little. Still, the color left behind by them is something worth marveling at.

The back and nape are greenwashed. The bill is an even deeper shade of black. The tail feather continued to have white on the underside.

Description And Identification

There are two ways of identifying Prothonotary Warblers. You can either focus on the colors on their body or pay close attention to the sounds they make. Often, if you are searching for them, especially during the breeding season, you might hear their song first.

The high pitched slurred notes are impossible to ignore. If you continue to follow the source, you should be able to see them. You need to familiarize yourself with the sound first so you can find them.

The other way to identify Prothonotary Warblers is, of course, by how they look. The golden yellow plumage of the warblers would immediately attract your attention.

Especially when they are hiding amongst the darkness of swamp hardwood lands, your eyes would be drawn to the gold ray of light around them. If they have gray wings and a bit of white on the underside of their tails, well, you will know for sure you have the right bird species.

If you have any confusion, the fact that you found this bird species near still water with lots of woods surrounding it should clear it up. Also, the fact they have unusually massive bodies with tiny tails and legs is another giveaway.

Prothonotary Warbler Song

The song of the male Prothonotary Warbler is loud. The notes are a 4 to 14, with the pitches so high that it will rattle in your head long after hearing it. Some people say it seems as if they are shouting tweet, tweet, tweet.

The notes get slurrier each time, with the volume increasing even more at the end. Often, you can see male warblers singing while perched somewhere high. In a minute, they tend to complete 5 to 6 notes.

If he is close to his nest, the song takes on a softer note. If he is with a female, the music starts first, but it has slowed down by the end.

The call of male and female Prothonotary Warblers is a “tisk” sounding one, with a sharp note. This call comes out if these warblers are trying to protect their nest against a predator or engaged in a fight with another warbler.

Every time the female Prothonotary Warbler leaves her nest or comes back to it, she lets out a call, as if announcing her departure or arrival. If a predator is seen anywhere near the nest, they let out a trill of an excessively high pitch to startle them. When the pairs are interacting among themselves, the call is softer, more “tisk” sounding.

Prothonotary Warbler Size

Prothonotary Warblers are quite large for warblers, with a heaviness to their gait. The head is as big as is the bill, which is triangular shaped. This bill is weighty if compared to other warblers. The legs and tails are considerably shorter, though.

Song sparrows are larger than Prothonotary Warblers. Yet, this species of warbler dwarfs Carolina Chickadees.

They are assumed to be about 13 cm in length at most. The wingspan is satisfactory, widening to about 22 cm. The Prothonotary Warbler’s weight is about 12.5 g that can largely be attributed to the belly and the head. The leg and tails are too thin.

Prothonotary Warbler Behavior

For foraging, one can often find Prothonotary Warblers around water streams that move slowly or not at all. They bounce from branches to branches at a slow pace. They also take great pleasure in hopping from dead trees that have fallen to the ground and from one twig to another.

When they search for food, they either stand on the ground or stay close to it. One can see these warblers flying from one tree or shrub to another with massive wingbeats. There does not seem to be a pattern to the way they flex their wings.

They are in the thickets or hovering over the water, trying to find insects amongst the foliages. Sometimes, they might even hop about on woods or logs floating in the water, checking the crevices if there is any insect there. Sometimes, their foraging ways imitate Nutthacher, winding upwards towards the trunks to find their food.

What Prothonotary Warbler Eat

Is it truly a warbler if they are not feeding on insects? Prothonotary Warbler is no exception. Though, they do add bits of snails to the otherwise organic insect diet. Their preferred adult insects consist of caterpillars, beetles, mayflies, etc. Snails and spiders are not skipped over by them either.

Occasionally, or more accurately in winter, they might eat some seeds. It happens when finding insects becomes too hard, but they still need the nutrition to continue with their daily life.

Where Prothonotary Warbler Live And Habitat

Prothonotary Warblers engage in breeding in bottomland forests completely flooded, swamps with woods, and streams and lakes where there is a bit of wood around.

These forests are not usually dense, though the tall trees provide for lots of shades. The dead trees might still be standing there, with holes in them made at first by woodpeckers.

Range and Migration

During the breeding season, one can find Prothonotary Warblers in the east of the US and Ontario’s southeast areas. Their choice of breeding place is always the swamps of hardwood forests. During winter, we can see them in Central America, the West Indies, and the north of South America. In the west, they appear as vagrants. Notably, they are seen in California sometimes.

Their migration distance is considered to be either a medium length journey or a long distanced one. From the Gulf of Mexico, they reach Mexico. From there, this species follows the Atlantic slope.

Prothonotary Warbler Lifecycle

In a brood, a Prothonotary Warbler can lay 4 to 6 eggs. What is impressive is that the number of eggs they lay can vary by quite a lot. It can go as low as three or as high as eight. Usually, though, the number stays within the five range.

The color of their eggs is either creamy white or a light shade of pink. Of course, the brown spots are ever-present, lending a distinction to them.

Only the female Prothonotary Warbler takes part during the incubation period. This process takes about 12 to 14 days in most cases. Once hatched, the youngins are provided with food by both sets of parents.

After about 10 to 11 days, they finally get prepared to leave their nest.  It is suspected that they learn how to swim even as a fledgling. The pairs give birth to two broods every year at the least.


At the start of April, male Prothonotary Warblers show up on the nesting ground. They do so before the female Prothonotary Warblers. The difference is by a week usually. Once the male warblers have arrived, it is a fight towards establishing territories. They do so by holding a tune, doing unique displays, fighting, and chasing other warblers to drive home their superiority.

Inside the cavities where the nest would be, male Prothonotary Warblers would leave behind some small Moses. They essentially make the dummy version of the nest. It is only after the female Prothonotary Warbler has arrived that she builds any real nest.

During the courtship period, one can see the male Prothonotary Warblers performing intense displays. They spread their tails, expand their wings and fluff their plumage. Usually, the site chosen for their nest is 5’ to 10’ up from the ground.

Sometimes, the nests are 3’ up. The nests are always somewhere where the water is, inside the tree with a hole standing near it. The cavities they make their nest in are usually ones left behind by woodpeckers. Rarely do they make their nest holes, though it is unfair to say they do not do so at all.

The stumps they choose to make their nest, in this case, tends to be low quality. Female warblers fill the nest cavity, brimming to the entrance of the holes. They use Moses, twigs, leaves, and barks to make the nest and the line with bark strips.

Anatomy of a Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warblers are large for warblers with a bill that is quite heavy. The head is not small in size either. Their belly is larger than the rest of their body, and the tails and legs are on the short side.

The tails are thin in shape too. On the other hand, the bill is quite thick. If you combine that with their beady eyes, they make for a vision.


Final Thoughts

Finding a Prothonotary Warbler is not hard; finding the habitat they live in is. You can locate the largest chunk of their population in the southeast region of North America. Here, it is the bottomland forests and swamps where you want to begin your search in.

You will find them in forests that have rivers running alongside them as well. An example would be the Mississippi. So, up north, you might see them way farther than you would expect, even in Wisconsin. In the extreme north- even in New Hampshire, they are seen in places where the rivers and forests meet.

When you have found a known spot where Prothonotary Warblers are, you have to get close to the water. Now, keep your eyes on the understories and look for a bird with the deepest shade of yellow.

They like to maintain a low profile in the forests, though their glowing body does not help much. For foraging, you will find them hovering over water and shorelines. The sound of their song will call to you, and you might become aware they are there before you even see them.

So, take out your binoculars and all other birding gear you have and get ready to look for Prothonotary Warbler come the April to July period.

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Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Prothonotary Warblers

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Prothonotary Warblers are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Prothonotary Warbler T-shirts

If you love the Prothonotary Warbler you should purchase a Bird Watching Academy & Camp T-shirt. To help support bird conservation we donate 10 percent to bird conservation activities.

Prothonotary Warbler Iron On Patches

Kids, Youth, and Adults love to collect our Bird Watching Academy & Camp iron on patches. Our bird watching patches help you keep track of the birds you have seen an identified. You can also display the patches on our Bird Watching Academy & Camp banners.

The Prothonotary Warbler is a great iron on patch to start your collection with. The patches are durable and can be sewn on or ironed on to just about anything.

Prothonotary Warbler Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Prothonotary Warbler. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders For Prothonotary Warbler

There are many types of bird feeders. Here are our favorite bird feeders for your backyard. We use all of these bird feeders currently. Kids will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. Using this collection of bird feeders will provide a wide variety and many types of birds.

Best Bird Houses for Prothonotary Warbler

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. These 4 bird houses have become our favorites. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. We spent a little extra money on these bird houses but they have been worth the higher price and look great.

Prothonotary Warbler Activities for Kids

We thought a fun perler bead pattern would be fun for kids. Please download and print with 100% scale to fit perfectly with perler bead patterns.

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