Male. Note: golden yellow face and underparts
  • Male. Note: golden yellow face and underparts
  • Female. Note: pale bill.
  • Note: white on tail and blue gray wings.

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Prothonotary Warbler

Protonotaria citrea
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
This large group of small, brightly colored songbirds is a favorite of many birdwatchers. Wood-warblers, usually called “warblers” for short by Americans, are strictly a New World family. Most of the North American members of this group are migratory, returning in the winter to the tropics where the family originated. Warblers that nest in the understory tend to have pink legs and feet, while those that inhabit the treetops usually have black legs and feet. North American males are typically brightly colored, many with patches of yellow. Most North American warblers do not molt into a drab fall/winter plumage; the challenge posed to those trying to identify warblers in the fall results from looking at mostly juvenile birds. Their songs are generally dry, unmusical, often complex whistles (“warbles”). Warblers that live high in the treetops generally have higher-pitched songs than those that live in the understory. Warblers eat insects gleaned from foliage or captured in the air. Many supplement their insect diet with some seeds and fruit, primarily in fall and winter, and some also eat nectar. Most are monogamous. The female usually builds the nest and incubates four to five eggs for up to two weeks. Both members of the pair feed the young.
  • Species of Concern

General Description

Size and structure—large, full-bodied, long-billed—make the Prothonotary Warbler an unlikely candidate for confusion with other warbler species. It is also distinctive in plumage, with bright-yellow head and breast, greenish-yellow back, and bluish wings. When spread, the bluish upperside of the tail shows large white spots. The underside of the tail is mostly white, extending onto the undertail coverts. The Blue-winged Warbler is somewhat similar in coloration but has a dark line through the eye and prominent white wingbars, in addition to being considerably smaller and more slender.

The Prothonotary Warbler inhabits wet woodlands and stream corridors, nesting mostly in tree cavities, in the lower Midwest, Middle Atlantic states, and Southeast. Its main wintering grounds extend from Honduras to Columbia and Venezuela. It migrates directly across the Gulf of Mexico or along the Gulf coastal lowlands. Prothonotary Warbler is an accidental vagrant in the Pacific Northwest, with 80 percent of the small number of records coming in fall. Washington’s two accepted records are from Richland (Benton County) on 5 September 1970 and Burbank (Walla Walla County) on 20–21 October 2005. British Columbia has one record (November) as does Idaho (September). Five of Oregon’s seven records fall between mid-August and mid-November; the other two are from May–June.

Revised November 2007

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
Yellow List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern