For the Birds: A Winter Warbler, if you plant for them

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter plumage.
Photo by Peggy Bartleson
By Christine Southwick

Hearing an unfamiliar “chip” from several birds, I stopped what I was doing and looked around. 

Imagine my surprise and delight to spot several Yellow-rumped Warblers flying out for bugs and using my suet feeders. 

Hocking for bugs, these little somewhat winter-drab warblers were moving around from tree branch to bush branch, and back, occasionally catching a bug on the wing. 

What a show, after I finally focused my binoculars on a couple. 

I also used the Merlin app to ID their chipping calls to confirm my identification.

Our area has two forms of the Yellow-rumped Warbler: the mostly year-round Audubon Yellow-rumped Warbler, and the mostly passing-through in the winter-time Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler. 

Photo by Yukari Yoshioka at Grace Cole Park
in Lake Forest Park
The Audubon form has a yellow throat, and the Myrtle form has a white throat (easiest distinguisher)

Warblers have two distinct plumages, called “alternate plumage”. 

This adaptation provides them with bright breeding plumage in the spring, and a duller easier-to-hide winter plumage when there is less foliage in which to conceal their yellow markings.

In the spring these brownish warblers with their colored throats and some white on their wings (Audubons usually have more than Myrtles), turn into smart-looking black, charcoal gray with white patches, and bright yellow rumps (which are often hard to see in the winter plumage).

Photo by Yukari Yoshioka at Grace Cole Park
 in Lake Forest Park
Because of their ability to feast on a wide variety of food, these yellow-rumped seem to be holding their own, population-wise, if we humans don’t poison all the bugs they eat.

They eat spruce budworm, bark beetles, weevils, aphids, caterpillars and other larvae. 

In the winter they eat bugs, fruits and berries like juniper and dogwood berries, including being the only birds that can digest wax myrtle berries. 

This is one of the reasons these warblers can stay so much farther north than most other warblers.

Bird baths during the summer
Photo by Chris Southwick
During winter times they also eat weed seeds, and come to feeders that have sunflower seeds, small fruits like raisins and blueberries, peanut butter, and suet.

Pesticides and herbicides are bad for the earth, our own breathing, and for all the birds and amphibians that rely on bugs to survive. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird Trends has found a sharp decline in American Robins, which rely on ground bugs and worms.
Plant native shrubs for the birds, especially warblers like these yellow-rumped, and put out suet and seeds. Add some liquid water, and your yard will be a welcome oasis year round.


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