Northern ParulaSetophaga americana

adult male
Greg Lasley/VIREO
adult female
Garth McElroy/VIREO
adult male
Garth McElroy/VIREO
immature female (1st winter)
Gerard Bailey/VIREO
immature (1st winter)
John Heidecker/VIREO
adult male
Brian E. Small/VIREO
adult female
James M. Wedge/VIREO



This small warbler is often hard to see as it forages in dense foliage of the treetops. However, it is easy to hear; the male seems to repeat his buzzy trickle-up song constantly from early spring through mid-summer at least. Northern Parulas hide their nests inside hanging Spanish moss in the South, or in the similar Usnea lichens in the North, where they are impossible to spot except by the actions of the parent birds.


Breeds mainly in humid woods where either Usnea or Spanish Moss hangs from the trees (but also in some woods where neither is found.) Nests mainly in humid coniferous and deciduous forests, especially those with abundant tree lichens, in swamps or along edges of ponds, lakes, or slow-moving streams. In migration and winter, frequents almost any kind of trees.

Feeding Diet

Mostly insects. Feeds on small beetles, flies, moths, caterpillars, egg clusters, true bugs, ants, bees, wasps, and other insects, also spiders. Also eats some small berries. May feed nestlings many soft green larvae.

Feeding Behavior

Forages rather sedately. Searches among leaves, and hovers to take insects from foliage, sometimes hanging upside down on twigs like a chickadee or on trunk like a nuthatch. Occasionally darts out after flying insects, or forages on ground.


Pairs often return to same nesting site year after year. Males sing during migration and throughout nesting season, even when feeding young. Nest: Placed usually in a hollow excavated in hanging tree lichens (Usnea) or Spanish moss, 4-50' above the ground. When no lichens or Spanish moss available, also constructed of dangling clumps of twigs or pine needles, or placed in rubbish left by floods in branches hanging over stream. Nest is small hanging pouch of lichen and twigs, unlined or lined sparsely with soft shreds of moss, grass, pine needles, and hair. Built solely by female, but male accompanies her on trips to the nest. Eggs: 4-5, occasionally 3-7. Whitish, variably marked with brown. Incubated by both parents, but mostly by female, 12-14 days. Young: Both parents feed young, but male may do more. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


4-5, occasionally 3-7. Whitish, variably marked with brown. Incubated by both parents, but mostly by female, 12-14 days. Young: Both parents feed young, but male may do more. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


Both parents feed young, but male may do more. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


Still widespread and common, numbers apparently stable.


Southern breeders return very early, often by early March, and may be actively nesting while other Parulas are passing through on their way farther north. Strays may appear in West at any time of spring or fall.


song variant
dawn song with chips
typical songs #1
dawn song #X
alarm chips
dawn song
typical songs #2

Similar Species

adult male, breeding

Cerulean Warbler

The sky-blue upperparts of the male Cerulean Warbler are difficult to observe in summer: At that season, the birds stay high in the tops of leafy trees in the eastern United States and extreme southern Canada. The bird itself has become harder to observe in recent decades, as its numbers have decreased in parts of its range. Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the warblers' nests, may be finding their unwitting "hosts" more easily as forest patches become smaller.

adult male, Central

Yellow-throated Warbler

A clear-voiced singer in the treetops in southern woodlands. Yellow-throated Warblers return very early in spring to the pine woods and cypress swamps, where they may be seen foraging rather deliberately along branches high in the trees. In the Midwest, they are typically found in riverside groves of sycamores. During the winter in Florida and other tropical areas, they are commonly seen creeping about in the crowns of palms, probing among the fronds with their long bills.

adult male

Grace's Warbler

A young man named Elliott Coues, later to become a leading ornithologist, discovered this bird in Arizona in 1864; perhaps homesick, he asked that it be named after his sister. Grace's Warbler is still common in the Southwest as a summer resident in mountain forests. It spends most of its time high in pine trees, where the male sings his thin rising chatter and where the female builds a neat, cup-shaped nest among a cluster of pine needles.

adult male

Kirtland's Warbler

One of our rarest songbirds, Kirtland's is a relatively large warbler that forages slowly, close to the ground, wagging its tail up and down. It nests only in stands of young jack pines in central Michigan, a habitat that grows up only briefly after fires, and its nests have been heavily parasitized in recent decades by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Controlled burning to create more habitat, and control of cowbird numbers, have helped the warbler somewhat, but it is not necessarily out of danger yet.

adult male

Tropical Parula

Very similar to our Northern Parula, this bird is widespread in the tropics, from northern Mexico to central Argentina. In our area, it is mainly a summer resident of southern Texas, especially in low live-oak groves south of Kingsville. Most of these birds seem to disappear in winter, but a few can be found at that season associating with roving flocks of titmice and other birds in woods along the Rio Grande.

adult male (breeding)

Blue-winged Warbler

The simple buzzy song of the Blue-winged Warbler is often heard in brushy overgrown fields and thickets in the East during the summer. Although the bird is not especially shy, it can be a challenge to observe as it forages actively in the dense brush. In recent decades this species has been expanding its range northward, encroaching on the territory of its close relative, the Golden-winged Warbler. The two species often interbreed.


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