Prairie Warbler

Setophaga discolor

The name Prairie Warbler is a bit of a misnomer, as this species inhabits pine barrens, cedar glades, old pastures, and other shrubby habitats, rather than grasslands. Its habit of bobbing its tail, its distinctive ascending buzzy song along with this habitat preference, makes it a rather easy species to identify. 

The Prairie Warbler breeds in the eastern United States from eastern Nebraska to central New England southward to the Gulf Coast and Florida. In winter, it can be found in the southern Gulf States and Florida, the West Indies, and coastal Central America. The Prairie Warbler is present in Tennessee between early April and mid-September.

Description: The Prairie Warbler is bright yellow below with black streaks on the sides of the chest, olive-green above with orange streaks on the back, and persistently pumps its tail. Females are similar to males, but are duller; immature birds (August-April) have a gray head, are whitish around the eye, and have indistinct dark stripes on the sides.

Length: 4.75"
Wingspan: 7"
Weight: 0.27 oz

Voice: The song is a series of ascending musical buzzes.

Similar Species:

  • Palm Warblers also pump their tails but have a rust-colored cap, and reddish side streaks.
  • Pine Warblers are larger, have two white wing-bars, indistinct streaks on their sides, and do not persistently pump their tail.
  • Kirtland's Warblers, extremely rare in Tennessee, also pump their tails and have black streaks along the sides of a yellow chest, but have a gray face and back, a thin, broken white eye-ring, and are a larger and heavier warbler.

Habitat: Breeds in a variety of low elevation shrubby habitats, including regenerating forests, open fields, pine barrens, cedar glades, and Christmas tree farms.

Diet: Small insects and spiders, but also moths and butterflies caught on the wing.

Nesting and reproduction: The male often returns to the territory he occupied the previous year. Egg-laying in Tennessee peaks in mid-May.

Clutch Size: 3 to 5 eggs, with an average of 4.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 days, with the male feeding her on the nest.

Fledging: Both parents feed the nestlings, which fledge when 9 to 10 days old. After fledging, the male and female divide the young and care for them for another month.

Nest: The female builds the open cup-nest of long plant fibers and milkweed down, and is lined with fine grasses, hair, and feathers. The nest is placed in a small tree or shrub, 6 or 7 feet above the ground.

Status in Tennessee: The Prairie Warbler is a fairly common migrant and summer resident in the state, especially in Middle Tennessee. Birds generally arrive by early April and depart by mid-September. Population declines in Tennessee, and throughout most of the range, are largely attributable to the loss of breeding habitat through development, "cleaner" farming practices, and natural succession of shrubby habitat to the forest.

Fun Facts:

  • Alexander Wilson named the Prairie Warbler in 1810 from specimens collected in Kentucky in a habitat that was then called a prairie. The habitat is now referred to as "a barrens."
  • As with many species of warbler, the Prairie Warbler sings two types of song. One is to attract and maintain the pair bond with the female, the other to defend its territory from other males. In the Prairie Warbler, both songs have ascending buzzy notes but the later type is lower in pitch and has fewer, longer notes.
  • The oldest known Prairie Warbler in the wild was 10 years, 3 months old.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Picket State Forest and WMA, Fall Creek Falls State Park, and Cedars of Lebanon State Park.