Prothonotary Warbler

Protonotaria citrea

The Prothonotary Warbler apparently acquired its current name from Louisiana Creoles in the 18th century.  They thought the bird's plumage resembled the yellow robes of the prothonotaries, a Catholic church official who advises the Pope.

The Prothonotary Warbler is unique among eastern warblers because it nests in tree cavities in flooded forests. 

It is found during the breeding season across much of the eastern United States ranging from Florida to eastern Texas and north to Wisconsin and New Jersey.  The breeding stronghold for the species, however, is in the lowlands of the southeastern United States, especially the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.

Prothonotary Warblers spend the nonbreeding season in mangrove swamps in southern Central America and northern South America.  The highest concentration is in Costa Rica, Panama, and northern Colombia.

The Prothonotary Warbler is present in Tennessee from early April to early August.

Description: This small songbird has a golden-yellow head and chest.  The bird has a bright black eye, solid gray wings, and a white belly.

The male and female are similar, but the female is slightly duller and less golden. The plumage of the Prothonotary Warbler does not change during the non-breeding season. 

Length: 5.5"
Wingspan: 8.75
Weight: 0.56 oz

Voice: The song is a series of clear, emphatic, ringing notes given at the same pitch: sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet. The call is a very loud, dry chip.

Similar Species:

  • The Prothonotary Warbler is unique in appearance and unlikely to be confused with any other species.

Habitat: Prothonotary Warblers breed in wooded swamps, flooded bottomland forests, and along slow-moving rivers.

Diet: They eat insects and snails during the breeding season. On the wintering grounds, this species will also eat fruits, seeds, and nectar along with insects.

Nesting and reproduction: The Prothonotary Warbler is the only cavity-nesting eastern warbler.

It especially likes abandoned Downy Woodpecker holes but will use the holes of other woodpeckers, natural cavities, and will readily accept artificial nest boxes.

About half of the females in Tennessee will attempt a second nesting after completing the first.

Clutch Size: They usually 5 eggs, with a range of 3 to 6.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days, with the male occasionally bringing her food.

Fledging: Both adults feed the young, which leave the nest after 10 days. The fledglings are dependent on the adults for another 3 to 4 weeks. If the female finds another nest, the male will care for all the fledglings.

Nest: Inside an abandoned woodpecker hole or other natural cavities, the female builds a nest using mostly mosses and liverworts. It takes approximately 3 to 5 days to build the nest. The average nest height in Tennessee is about 6.5 feet. Nest Box Instructions here.

Status in Tennessee: The Prothonotary Warbler is a common summer resident found in cypress swamps and river bottomland forests.  It arrives from the end of March to the beginning of April and departs in late July to early August. 

The population appears to be stable in Tennessee but slightly declining elsewhere in the range.

Dynamic map of Prothonotary Warbler eBird observations in Tennessee

Conservation: The Prothonotary Warbler is on the National Audubon Society Watch List because of the continuing destruction of mangroves on their wintering grounds.

Fun Facts:

  • If a fledgling Prothonotary Warbler lands in the water after its first flight, it can swim to safety.
  • The Prothonotary Warbler is one of only two warbler species that breed in cavities. The other species is Lucy's Warbler found in the southwestern United States.

Obsolete English Names: golden swamp warbler

Best places to see in Tennessee: Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park and Wildlife Management Area, Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge, Reelfoot Lake area, Tennessee River, Duck River, Hatchie River valleys. There is often a breeding pair on the dam at Radnor Lake State Park.

For more information:

Tennessee's Woodworking for Wildlife page with nest box instructions

Prothonotary Warbler Birdhouse