Home > Columns > Prothonotary Warbler


NatureSmart Column

Prothonotary Warbler

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

September 5, 2023

There is a group of birds that a lot of people find very interesting and yet at the same time very frustrating. These are the warblers. The New World Warblers or sometimes called Wood-Warblers are an interesting group of birds that are often brightly colored, small and spend much of their time at the tops of trees. The bright colors are why many people find them interesting to look at but their nature of hanging out at the tops of trees makes them difficult to watch and very frustrating to correctly identify.  

Warblers are unique to the New World. For those not familiar with the term “New World”, this means the America’s—North, Central and South America. Our warblers are not closely related to the Old World Warblers or Australian Warblers found in Europe, Asia and Australia. Most of these birds are arboreal, feeding high up in trees and building nests in the upper branches of tall trees, but a number of species feed, live and nest on the ground.

We have 53 different species of warbler in North America. There are many more in the tropics of Central and South America. Our warblers are highly migratory and move up into the northern tier states and Canada for nesting and return to the tropics for winter. Most of our warblers are highly migratory.

Most warblers have complex and pleasant-sounding songs. Typically, the male is the songster and belts out a loud and musical song in spring to attract a mate and to announce he is willing to defend his territory. Warblers also have a variety of calls. Calls are different from songs. Calls are usually a single sharp note that is given when the bird is alarmed or threatened. These “chip” notes are given by both males and females while males tend to be the sole songster.

The songs of warblers tend to be loud and clear. Birds who live, hunt and nest close to the ground tend to have lower pitched songs. The low pitch helps the song carry across the forest floor. Birds that live, and nest high in trees usually have higher pitched songs which allows their songs to travel further due to less obstacles. So basically, the song is optimized for the habitat that they live in.

Warblers tend to be small birds, usually under 7 inches in length. Our New World Warblers are often brightly colored, and males tend to have the flashy colors and females’ trend towards the duller side. In spring it is often easier to identify the warblers migrating through your area because of the brightly colored feathers. But in fall many of the warbler species molt into non-breeding plumage, making them all look similar and very difficult to distinguish between the species.

All of this info about warblers was rushing through my head the other day while photographing one of the more interesting warbler species. A friend of mine let me know about a pair of Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nesting nearby. I dropped everything and went to see it because this is a very interesting bird species. The Prothonotary Warbler is the only warbler species found in the eastern half of the country that nests in a natural cavity. They can also be attracted to nest in wooden nest boxes. They often nest in old woodpecker cavities but are also known to nest in other natural cavities. Although it is often stated that they can excavate their own nest cavity in a rotten stump, I find this highly unlikely due to the size and shape of their bill. They are insect eaters and have a small thin bill to capture insects and doesn’t make for a good excavating tool.

The name “Prothonotary” comes from the Byzantine court, official scribes in the Catholic Church, whose members wore golden-yellow robes. Both the male and female Prothonotary Warbler are bright yellow in color, but the male is noticeably brighter. These birds breed mostly in hardwood wetlands, usually in flood planes of major river bottoms.

It didn’t take long after I arrive in the flood plane forest to locate the pair of warblers. The male was singing loud near the nest and it’s not difficult to spot these brightly colored birds. Both the male and female were feeding the babies and coming to the nest cavity every 5 mins or so with an wide variety of insects. Each visit the parents would reach into the cavity to feed the young inside which allowed me just enough time to capture some fabulous images of these super color warblers. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com and facebook.com. He can be contacted via his website at www.naturesmart.com.


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

Recent Columns
Most RecentAbout Stan's Columns


Just the day before, a pack of wolves known as the Wapiti, had found a large bull bison that was weak and injured. Based on its size, this big boy was near the end of its lifespan and the winter weather was taking its toll. For a full day the wolves tried to approach the bison but when the bison...


It was one of those dark and cloudy winter days in Yellowstone National Park where the clouds are so heavy and low, you feel like you can reach up and touch the cloudy sky. A light wind helped to blow the falling snow with occasional gusts of wind causing swirls of fluffy white snow...

American Badger

It’s funny, I believe the average person knows more about the Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis), a critter of Africa and Southwest Asia than they do about the badger in our own backyard, the American Badger (Taxidea taxus). Social media has a lot to do with the Honey Badger phenomena and...

Backyard Bird Feeding

Winter bird feeding is one of the most common / popular hobbies in America. It is estimated that nearly 60 million Americans feed birds in their yards in winter or summer. That is about 40 percent of all American’s make backyard bird feeding part of their everyday activities. It’s...

Wildlife Photography Tours

Each year, during June and July, Stan Tekiela offers two world-class wildlife photography tours. Here's your chance to learn some tricks of the trade from a top professional.

» More Info

View all of the titles in the
NatureSmart Bookstore

Check out Stan's latest photos at
NatureSmart Wildlife Images

Do you have any interesting wildlife in your backyard? Any nesting birds, deer, turkeys, reptiles, amphibians, or other unique wildlife? Or maybe a fox or coyote den?

If so, contact Stan at stan@naturesmart.com with your backyard wildlife. If he can get a good photo of the subject, he will send you a print of the photo to hang on your wall.

» More Info

Order Prints and posters of Stan's photos at
» Prints & Posters

Hear Stan on radio stations all across the Midwest.
» More Info