For the Birds: Our Winter Warblers

Monday, March 16, 2020

Female Townsend's Warbler
Photo by Craig Kerns
By Christine Southwick

Are you seeing warblers in your yard in the wintertime, really?


As a rule, warblers go south in the winter—at least most of them do.

The majority of Townsend’s Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers migrate south, but there are sub-groups of these two species that have decided they would hunker down here rather than undertake the arduous journeys southward and back.

The ones who do migrate long distances may start late, be spread over extended periods, and spring migration is often late compared to other warblers. Additionally, some of the Townsend’s Warblers that breed in British Columbia only migrate as far south as here.

In our local area, many Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped eat suet as they replace their now-scarce summer-diet of insects. These warblers are often seen at bird baths, drinking and cleaning their feathers (so keep your bird baths liquid in cold weather).

Male Townsend's Warbler
Photo by Craig Kerns
Both species will eat fruit during the wintertime, including shriveled blackberries, and can be found in yards with bushes and trees.

It isn’t until winter that these two species venture into more open areas and lower elevations in search of food, and milder weather.

Another reason we notice them in the winter more than the rest of the year is that both Townsend’s Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers usually stay in dense evergreens the rest of the year and breed high up in conifers.

Townsend’s Warblers need large dense conifer forests. Unfortunately, their mid-elevation forested habitat has been heavily timbered causing large habitat loss for the Townsend’s, thus putting them a risk. Yellow-rumped Warblers, being a little more flexible habitat-wise, are currently doing well in Washington.

Female Yellow-rumped Warbler
Photo by Greg Lavaty
Both species form monogamous seasonal pairs, hide their cup-shaped nests in conifers, and the males of each species help feed up to five young.

In good years females may have a second brood, while the males feed and teach the first brood.

Both species stay in somewhat solitary pairs most of the year, only forming small flocks during migrations.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are a little larger than Townsend’s Warblers, weighing in at .5 ounces versus .3 ounces, but the Townsend’s have more yellow than the Yellow-rumped.

The Pacific Northwest does not have as many warbler species as the east coast, but we do have two warblers that visit us in the wintertime — something most of the east coast can’t claim.


Anonymous,  February 4, 2023 at 8:04 AM  

02.04.23 7:45am Covington, WA
Just saw a Townsend Warbler in my backyard.. Oh my goodness it's adorable 🥰 never seen one before!
I think it was a male and was feeding on peanut suet right in front of my kitchen window. It took my breath away how beautiful this little birdie is 💛🐦💝

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