For the Birds: Townsend’s Warbler—the prettiest songbird in Western North America?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A bird in the hand of Christine Southwick during the
February bird banding.
By Christine Southwick

There are some who say the Townsend’s Warbler is one of the prettiest birds in Western North America. With its dark stripes and cheek patch in a bright yellow face, yellow breast, white belly, and two white wing bars in dark olive and black wings, I’d have to agree.

The male has a black head-stripes and cheek patch, and black on the throat and crown; the female has olive-colored stripes and cheek patch and crown, and a light throat. The male is very distinctive, but the female and juvenile can be confused with the Hermit Warbler. Since Townsend’s sometimes mate with Hermits, there can be some really confusing looking hybrids.

Female Townsend's Warbler
Photo by Christine Southwick
Townsends’ are migratory birds with two separate wintering grounds. Because the wintering grounds of the Queen Charlotte Islands’ Townsend’s is here and along the Pacific Coast, we are lucky enough to have Townsend’s around all year round. Whether the Townsend’s Warblers you see in the winter are the same ones you see in the summer, or if the winter ones go north to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and our summer ones are from Mexico or Guatemala is not known. Preliminary studies suggest that the Townsend’s that winter here have shorter-length wings than the ones that fly all the way to Central America, but more banding and study is needed.

And because Townsend’s prefer to nest on the ends of branches on tall mature evergreens in dense forests, there is much that isn’t known about their movements, or all their breeding habits. It is believed that they are seasonally monogamous, with the males arriving first to pick and defend their territories by singing. The female lays 3-5 eggs in a well-concealed nest, and both parents feed the young.

Juvenile Townsend's Warbler in bath
Photo by Christine Southwick
Townsend’s Warblers are primarily insect eaters, gleaning bugs from tree branches and foliage, usually by climbing around, but sometimes they will hover. They will eat some berries, and there have been numerous local reports of Townsend’s drinking nectar from hummingbird feeders

Add a bird bath with warmer, and suet in the winter time and you will probably have a Townsend’s visit your yard, and maybe even stay for the winter.

One thing is certain, once you have seen a Townsend’s Warbler in your yard,you will be looking for it again, and again.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Janet Way July 14, 2011 at 7:45 AM  

Beautiful report on a beautiful bird Chris! Thanks!

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