Prothonotary Warbler

Protonotaria citrea

(c) Glen Tepke
  • PARULIDAE
  • Wood Warblers
  • Passeriformes
  • Chipe dorado; Chipe Anaranjado (Venezuela, Mexico)
  • Paruline orangée
Introduction
In the shade of America's wooded swamps and river bottom forests, the Prothonotary Warbler is a dash of gold. Its common name refers to Catholic notaries privileged to wear golden hoods. This migratory songbird nests in cavities--of over 50 warblers in North America, only Lucy's Warbler shares this behavior. The future of the Prothonotary Warbler depends in part on the vanishing mangrove habitat within their wintering grounds.
(c) Sandy Selesky
Appearance Description
The Prothonotary Warbler is a small songbird with brilliant plumage. The male's golden head contrasts with his large, dark eyes, black bill, and greenish back. Yellow extends over the belly, fading into white underneath the short tail. The wings are grayish-blue with black edges. Females have similar plumage, except with green washing over the crown. On average, Prothonotary Warblers weigh .56 ounces, measure 5.5 inches in length, and fly on wings spanning 8.75 inches.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Excluding the Appalachian Mountains, Prothonotary Warblers breed across most of the midwestern and southeastern United States. They winter along the Caribbean coast of Central American and northeastern South America.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Prothonotary Warblers breed in wooded swamps, forested river bottoms, and the edges of lakes or ponds. Trees with existing cavities or stumps that can be excavated are vital for nesting. In the winter, this species prefers mangroves and wet forests at low elevation.
Feeding
Prothonotary Warblers pick insects, spiders, and small snails from the surfaces of tree trunks, fallen logs, and the ground. Males tend to search for food higher in the canopy, but both sexes explore tangles and the water's edge. On their wintering grounds, Prothonotary Warblers supplement their diet with nectar and fruit. They sometimes visit hummingbird feeders.
Reproduction
Male Prothonotary Warblers arrive early to establish territories, using vigorous song, and chasing and fighting behavior. Males adorn false nests with moss and sometimes build a cup. The purpose of these "dummy" nests is not clear, but the male displays in front of all of them. After females arrive a few days later, both sexes display and form pairs for the season. Most often, the birds use abandoned woodpecker holes, but will occasionally dig their own cavities in soft wood, 3 to 10 feet above the water. Prothonotary Warblers also use artificial cavities, including nest boxes, old cartons, cans, and jars.
 
Female Prothonotary Warblers complete the nest, line it with fine plant materials, and lay 3 to 7 whitish eggs with brown spots. After approximately 12 days of incubation by the female, the young emerge naked and helpless. Both parents tend the young. Fledglings leave the nest after 10 days and can swim short distances by flapping their wings. The parents separate the fledglings into two groups and each parent feeds one group for up to 30 days. Independent juveniles gather in small flocks and tend to remain fairly close to their natal territory.
Migration
Prothonotary Warblers migrate early, both to and from their breeding grounds, and probably fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico. These warblers migrate mostly at night, in small single-species flocks. Prothonotary Warblers may migrate short distances within their wintering range to avoid dry conditions.
  • 1,800,000
  • 1,800,000
  • moderate population declines; small nonbreeding range
Population Status Trends
In several parts of its range, the Prothonotary Warbler has been declining since 1966. On average, decreasing numbers of these warblers have been recorded on both Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys; the latter indicating significant declines in Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia between 1966 and 1996. From the late 1980s to 1996, Canada's sole breeding population has dropped by at least 75% and the bird is now listed as Endangered in Canada. The group Partners in Flight has designated the Prothonotary Warbler as "Threatened and Declining."
Conservation Issues
Although logging or farming has destroyed 90% of the Prothonotary Warbler's original breeding habitat, where mature and extensive river bottom forests remain intact, the Prothonotary Warbler can still thrive. Successful breeding depends on the availability of dead trees for cavity nesting, and standing water for foraging. Bird houses for this species' use have been successful, even in degraded and fragmented habitat.
 
For seven months of the year, most Prothonotary Warblers live in mangrove forests. Expanding agriculture, shrimp farms, and tourism have caused significant destruction of these areas. The rapid deforestation of mangroves has coincided with simultaneous declines in Prothonotary Warblers on their breeding range. Mangroves continue to be lost at a rate of 1.7% per year along the Caribbean mainland, where petroleum spills and heavy metals hinder reforestation. Groups like Partners in Flight are calling for more research on how these losses impact Prothonotary Warblers, and more conservation efforts focusing on habitat conservation.
What You Can Do
Hike river bottom forests and look for the Prothonotary Warbler in early spring. An encounter with this brilliant songbird can be inspirational.
 
Support or initiate local efforts to erect nest boxes for the Prothonotary Warbler. To observe a webcam in a successful nest box or to learn about birdhouse construction, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Birdhouse Network
 
Protect the mangrove forests of Central and South America by buying products and taking vacations that do not require the destruction of the Prothonotary Warbler's wintering habitat.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Dunn, John L. and Kimball L. Garrett. A Field Guide to Warblers of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1997.
 
Ellison, Aaron M and Elizabeth J. Farnsworth. "Anthropogenic Disturbance of Caribbean Mangrove Ecosystems: Past Impacts, Present Trends, and Future Predictions." Biotropica 28:4, Part A. Special Issue: Long Term Responses of Caribbean Ecosystems to Disturbances (Dec., 1996), pp. 549-565.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Petit, L. J. 1999. Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea). In The Birds of North America, No. 408 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Wood, Douglas R. "Prothonotary Warbler Nest Success and Vegetation Characteristics in a Fragmented Oklahoma Landscape." Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science 84 (2004); pp. 27-31. 31 May 2006
Conservation Status References
Dunn, John L. and Kimball L. Garrett. A Field Guide to Warblers of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1997.
 
Ellison, Aaron M and Elizabeth J. Farnsworth. "Anthropogenic Disturbance of Caribbean Mangrove Ecosystems: Past Impacts, Present Trends, and Future Predictions." Biotropica 28:4, Part A. Special Issue: Long Term Responses of Caribbean Ecosystems to Disturbances (Dec., 1996), pp. 549-565.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Petit, L. J. 1999. Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea). In The Birds of North America, No. 408 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Wood, Douglas R. "Prothonotary Warbler Nest Success and Vegetation Characteristics in a Fragmented Oklahoma Landscape." Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science 84 (2004); pp. 27-31. 31 May 2006