Welcome, Warblers! Identifying Birds & Their Songs

When spring finally arrives, many of us head outside to soak in the sun, smell the flowers and hear the birds singing. But have you ever noticed that some bird calls that sounded unfamiliar? Or maybe spotted some colorful little birds flitting through the branches that didn’t look like the birds at your feeder? Did you wonder what they were?

There’s a good chance that you were seeing and hearing warblers. Warblers are small songbirds that hail from the tropics and are usually brightly colored. They are called warblers because they have intricate, warbling songs. We’re most likely to see warblers in the spring as they migrate out of Central America and South America to reach their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada. When they arrive in Ohio, many of them are refueling and resting briefly to continue their journey, but some will stay and nest in our state. However, you may only see them briefly – these small birds don’t hold still for long, as they’re constantly chasing down insects to eat. In fact, one way to spot them is to watch for motion. You can also listen to their varied songs as they sing loudly for a mate. Many of these species will also pass through in the fall, though with duller color and quieter voices as they transition out of the breeding season.

There are 37 warblers that regularly migrate through Ohio, and 25 species nest here over the summer. So, how can you learn to identify these restless little birds who will be here for just a short time? Let’s focus on some relatively common warblers that are easy to identify and who also nest in Ohio to get you started. 

American Redstart

A black American Redstart sits on a leaf. It has black wings and tail with orange patches.
American Redstart by Sloalan (Photo courtesy Creative Commons)

The American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) male is mostly black with orange patches on his sides, wings and tail. The female is gray overall with yellow patches instead of orange.

American Redstarts can be easier to find than some other warblers because they like to forage in lower branches in the forest understory. You also may notice them as they fan their tails to flash their bright colors. The male will vocalize often as he moves from branch to branch, with a series of 2–11 high notes that end sharply. 

Prothonotary Warbler

A bright yellow Prothonotary Warbler sits on a twig. It has black eyes and a beak. There is black on its wings.
Prothonotary Warbler (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Prothonotary warblers (Protonotaria citrea) are a bit large for a warbler, with a more substantial bill than others. However, you will undoubtedly first notice them for their strikingly bright yellow color and charcoal gray wings and tail. You will find them foraging near streams, lakes and other waterways, earning them the nickname “swamp warbler.” Fortunately for us, they move more slowly than other warblers, and they tend to stay in the understory like the Redstart, so you may enjoy a nice, long look at one.

The prothonotary warbler is unusual for the fact that it nests in tree cavities. If you’re lucky, you may see a male flying up high and fluttering back down to court a female. The male will have chosen several potential tree cavities for nesting, but the female will make the final decision. 

Northern Parula

A Northern Parula warbler sits on a post. It has bluish-gray feathers on the top of its body and yellow feathers on its underbelly.
Northern Parula (Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park Service)

The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) will often be found singing in tree tops, causing many admiring birders to develop “warbler neck” (a term of endearment for a neck sore from craning). Their song is unique, so once you know it, it’s usually easy to pick out. Listen for a series of rising notes that end sharply, like “zee zee zee zee zap!” The parula itself is recognizable by its yellow throat and bib, blue-grey head and back, and incomplete white eye-ring. The yellow on its breast can also have some reddish coloring in it.

Unlike other warblers that nest far north in Canada, Ohio is actually at the northern end of the parula’s breeding range. Parulas are closely associated with Spanish moss, beard moss and lace lichens because they build their nests in them. While many bird populations are struggling, the parula population has actually been on the rise in recent decades!

Yellow-Throated Warbler

A yellow-throated warbler rests on a large leaf. It has bright yellow throat, along with a white belly, streaked sides, gray back and black triangle under the eye.
Yellow-Throated Warbler (Photo by cuatrok77/Creative Commons)

This charming bird is nicknamed the “sycamore warbler,” and is closely associated with the tree. They can be seen high up in the branches inching along, gleaning insects from leaves and bark. Yellow-Throated Warblers (Setophaga dominica) sing loudly from the tree tops all season; a clear series of notes usually a descending “cheer cheer cheer cheer.” Watch for their bright yellow throat, along with a white belly, streaked sides, gray back and black triangle under the eye.

Like the Northern Parula, Yellow-Throated Warblers prefer to nest in forest canopies, especially in Spanish moss. While their range is more southern than other warblers, they do seem to be expanding their range northward. 

Common Yellowthroat

A Common Yellowthroat warbler sits on a thin branch. The bird has a yellow throat and breast, and are brownish-yellow above. It also has distinctive black mask across its face.
Common Yellowthroat (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Don’t confuse this little beauty for the yellow-throated warbler! Their names may be similar, but they are very different birds! This small stout warbler has a yellow throat and breast, and is a brownish-yellow above. Note the male’s distinctive black mask.

Instead of the tree canopy, the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) prefers to spend its time in low, scrubby habitats near water. They hop and skulk through the brush, easily staying hidden, just to pop up and sing their “witchety-witchety-witchety” song. Look for Common Yellowthroats in fields, marshes and open woods with dense brush or grasses. They even nest rather low to the ground! Common Yellowthroats are curious birds, like wrens, and will sometimes come closer when you make a “pish pish” sound.

Now you know a handful of warblers to get you started – so head outside this spring, listen and look for our tropical visitors!

If you would like to learn more, try the Macaulay Library, a fantastic source of photos and audio recordings.

Lisa Salehpour
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods