Prothonotary Warbler has place in swamps, low lands


If you’ve spent time in the cypress swamps or bottomland forests of Mississippi during the spring and summer months, you have probably seen a small golden-plumaged bird darting through the trees.

This bird is the prothonotary warbler, one of two wood warblers found in the United States that nest in the cavities of trees.

The prothonotary warbler gets its unusual name from the yellow color of the robes of the College of Prothonotaries Apostolic, a branch of the Roman Catholic Church.

The prothonotary warbler is a small neotropical migratory bird, reaching approximately 5 inches in length. The head of males is a bright golden-orange color and is yellow in females and immature birds. The back is olive in color and the underside and breast are unstreaked yellow. The wings and tail are a pale blue-gray with the tail having white spots and white undertail coverts. The feet and legs are black.

The breeding and summer range of the prothonotary warbler occurs along the East Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast and throughout the Eastern United States, but is more common in Southern states. Winter months are spent in the tropics in mangrove swamps and lowland woodlands. The preferred habitat of the Prothonotary Warbler is wooded swampy areas and forested bottomlands near slow moving or standing water.

The diet consists almost entirely of insects, adults and larvae, including aquatic insects, ants, caterpillars, mayflies, beetles and other insects. They also feed on snails and other small mollusks. Prothonotary warblers hop on floating logs, looking into crevices or foraging like a nuthatch in the trunks of trees, as well as gathering insects among foliage, usually in low thickets above water.

The prothonotary warbler has a unique courting process. The male is the first to arrive and establish a territory by singing, active displays, chases and fighting. Once a territory is established, he will build a mock nest and display to females by fluffing plumage and spreading his tail and wings.

Prothonotary warblers usually build nests 5 to 10 feet up, and generally above water. The nests are built in cavities abandoned by small woodpeckers or in the holes of trees and stumps. The female will fill the nest cavity almost to the entrance with moss, dry leaves, twigs and bark, finally lining it with rootlets and strips of bark.

A complete clutch of eggs usually consists of 3 to 8 eggs, which are creamy or pink, with brown spots. The female incubates the eggs for a period of 12 to 14 days. Once hatched, both the male and female feed the young. Within 10 to 11 days, the nestlings fledge and are able to fly and interestingly enough, swim. Prothonotary warblers usually rear 2 broods in the South.

Habitat loss has had detrimental effects on the nesting potential for these warblers. It is interesting to note, that much like wood ducks, research has shown that prothonotary warblers will take readily to artificial nest boxes.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plant resources throughout Mississippi. Their web site is

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