Prothonotary Warbler

Protonotaria citrea


Photo of a prothonotary warbler perched on a small branch.
The swamp-dwelling prothonotary warbler has a yellow head, yellow breast and blue-gray wings.
Noppadol Paothong

Parulidae (New World wood-warblers) in the order Passeriformes


Prothonotary warbler upperparts are golden yellow, with a large dark eye and long dark bill. Wings and tail are blue-gray, with white spots in the tail. Underparts are golden yellow, with white under tail feathers. Female has the same color pattern but is yellowish with gray wings. Song is a loud ringing series: “swank-swank-swank.” Call is a sharp “tsink” or “tink.”


Length: 5½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).


Image of a prothonotary warbler
Prothonotary Warbler


Video of prothonotary warblers in the wild.

Prothonotary Warbler

a bird with a yellow head and yellow-gray wings perches on a twig
Audio of a Prothonotary warbler.

Prothonotary Warbler-20180510-2222_0.jpg

A yellow bird with dark wings sits on a bare tree branch.
Prothonotary Warbler at Long Branch Lake in Macon
Habitat and conservation

Forests and woodlands, usually near water. Forages in downed logs, dead standing trees and under bark in swamps and along stream banks. This bird often nests in cavities excavated by woodpeckers, but house wrens often outcompete them for these holes. Another problem is nest parasitism by brown cowbirds, which covertly lay their eggs in the warbler’s nest. Their young outcompete the warbler’s young for the parents’ food. Loss of habitat is another factor causing this species’ numbers to fall.


Prothonotary warblers eat insects and other invertebrates from dead logs and trees and under bark, using their efficient, pointy, tweezerlike bills.

image of Prothonotary Warbler distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide except for the northwestern corner.


Common summer resident.

Life cycle

Most arrive in our state in April, and nesting begins soon after they return. This species nests in snags or hollow trees in forests near water. The opening to the cavity is filled with moss, leaves, twigs and bark. There are 4–6 eggs in a clutch, and incubation lasts 12–14 days. After hatching, the young birds fledge after 11 days.

Human connections

Colorful and with a cheery song, warblers add greatly to our appreciation of springtime forests. It’s named after a college of Roman Catholic clerks, famous for their robes of yellow. In this regard, it’s similar to the northern cardinal, which was named for the red robes worn by Catholic cardinals.

Ecosystem connections

These warblers are constantly hunting for insects on trees and bark. Like woodpeckers, they help to check populations of wood-eating insects that might otherwise cause great harm to our forest trees.