For the Birds: A Yellow Bird in the Winter? Here?

Monday, February 28, 2022

Male Townsend's on branch. Photo by Craig Kerns

By Christine Southwick

Who’s that small warbler-sized bird with yellow and black on its head feeding on my suet, here in the dead of winter? That’s a Townsend’s Warbler!

The male’s yellow head with the black ear patch and black throat, plus the blackish cap really make the yellow pop. The male has a black throat above his yellow breast, and black streaks on the sides of the breast. The female has similar markings, except her black is so pale it looks almost greenish, and her throat is bright yellow. Both males and females have a yellow spot directly under their eyes.

Female Townsend's photo by Craig Kerns
Townsend’s Warblers thrive in old growth forests but can be found in tall evergreen forests with mature, not open, understories. 

They are at home from sea level to subalpine forests, building their nest for 3-5 eggs more than 30 feet up (third-story building height) on a main limb of an evergreen.

The brightly colored males sing their buzzy territorial songs from the top of tall evergreens, making it frustratingly hard to see them while hiking amongst tall conifers.

Townsend’s love caterpillars, especially spruce budworms. They glean lots of insects from conifer needles and buds, plus occasionally catching insects on the wing.
Female Townsend's on suet. Photo by Craig Kerns

Most Townsend’s Warblers migrate to Mexico or Central America during the winter, but a smaller population stays year-round in western Washington and Oregon. 

These hearty warblers come down lower to find wintering bugs, and will readily eat suet, mealworms and peanut butter. 

They still need lots of evergreen cover, and liquid water, so only come to yards that supply those requirements.

Why don’t you see them much in the summertime? 

Male watching. Photo by Craig Kerns
They are here, mostly high in the canopy, although they will come down for a drink of water, and while hunting lower bugs to feed nestlings. 

Yellow is a surprisingly effective camouflage coloring, especially if a yellow bird is pursuing bugs in trees with yellow in their leaves, like weeping willows, and alders.

Habitat loss is the number one cause of species declines, and logging of old growth, and the cutting down of large, tall neighborhood trees seem to be affecting some Townsend’s populations.

Watch your suet feeders, put out mealworms and peanut butter, and you may see these warblers in your yard all year long. They don’t stay long, but they will return repeatedly once they have found a reliable food source. Enjoy—you should be so lucky.


LucindaW March 1, 2022 at 11:40 AM  

Yes! We've had a family overwintering here in Gig Harbor visiting our suet all winter long for several years. We're lucky enough to have our house snuggle amongst tall Douglas fir and Western red cedars.

Anonymous,  January 13, 2024 at 2:12 PM  

So exciting to know this! I am in my shop and have plants outside the window and this beautiful little guy came down to eat some bugs out of the plants. I had never seen one before so I looked it up. Thanks for posting this info about this beautiful little creature! Carolyn Ackerman, Petunia's Place in Newport, Oregon

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