Cape May WarblerSetophaga tigrina

adult male, breeding
Adrian & Jane Binns/VIREO
immaturemale (1st winter)
Gerard Bailey/VIREO
adult female, breeding
Joe Fuhrman/VIREO
immature female (1st winter)
Richard Crossley/VIREO
adult male, nonbreeding
Rob Curtis/VIREO
immature male (1st winter)
Rob Curtis/VIREO
immature female (1st winter)
Rob & Ann Simpson/VIREO
adult male, breeding
Glenn Bartley/VIREO
adult male, breeding
Arthur Morris/VIREO



Many of our migratory warblers seem to lead double lives, and the Cape May is a good example. It summers in northern spruce woods, but winters in the Caribbean, where it is often seen in palm trees. In summer it eats insects, but during migration and winter it varies its diet with nectar from flowers and with juice that it obtains by piercing fruit. Birders easily recognize the tiger-striped males in spring, but drab fall birds can be perplexing.


Spruce forest; other trees in migration. Breeds in spruce forest, either in pure stands or mixed with firs or other trees, generally in more open woods or near the forest edge. During migration often favors conifers, but also forages in deciduous trees and thickets. In Florida and the West Indies in winter, often feeds in the crowns of palm trees.

Feeding Diet

Mostly insects, some fruit, nectar. Diet includes spruce budworms, parasitic wasps and flies, ants, bees, small moths, beetles, leafhoppers, also spiders. In migration, may pierce grapes and drink the juice. Also feeds on sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers. Unique among warblers, the Cape May has a tubular tongue; in winter, it feeds heavily on flower nectar and fruit juices.

Feeding Behavior

On the breeding grounds, feeds mainly out at the tips of branches of spruce trees. Will hang head downward at the tips of branches to pick insects from the undersides of needles. Often flies out several feet to catch flying insects in mid-air. In winter, may defend flowering plants from hummingbirds and other nectar feeders.


Male defends nesting territory against other Cape Mays and other warbler species. During courtship, male displays by flying above female with wings held stiffly out. Nest: Placed very close to the top of a 35-60' spruce or fir, in thick foliage against trunk. Nest is cup-shaped and made of moss, vines, weeds; lined thickly with feathers and fur. Probably built by female. Nest is very hard to find because female flies into the tree low and then sneaks up the trunk to enter the nest; when leaving it, she moves down the trunk instead of flying directly away. Eggs: 6-7, sometimes 4-9. May lay more eggs during outbreaks of spruce budworm. Eggs whitish with red-brown spots. Probably incubated by female, unknown number of days. Young: Probably fed by both parents. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


6-7, sometimes 4-9. May lay more eggs during outbreaks of spruce budworm. Eggs whitish with red-brown spots. Probably incubated by female, unknown number of days. Young: Probably fed by both parents. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


Probably fed by both parents. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


Numbers rise and fall, increasing during population explosions of spruce budworm and other insects in northern forests. Apparently has become more common overall in recent decades.


Migrates mostly at night. Moves north from Caribbean mostly through Florida in spring. Many move south along Atlantic Coast in early fall. A few linger to late fall or even winter, especially outside normal range.


songs #2
songs & calls
songs #1

Similar Species

adult male, breeding

Bay-breasted Warbler

This is a characteristic warbler of spruce forest in eastern Canada in summer. Its numbers vary from year to year, and are likely to increase quickly during population explosions of the spruce budworm or other forest pests. This species forages rather slowly compared to most warblers, moving deliberately among the branches. The male Bay-breasted Warbler is unmistakable in spring but goes through a striking transformation in fall, becoming a greenish "confusing fall warbler."

adult male, Myrtle, breeding

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adult male, breeding

Blackburnian Warbler

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adult male, breeding

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adult, breeding, Yellow (Eastern)

Palm Warbler

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adult male,breeding

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adult male

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