COLUMN: Warbler migration on wing

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     If you’ve been paying more attention to the birds outside your window or in the trees along your walk you’ve probably noticed some of North America’s most beautiful and colorful little birds, the warblers. I’ve had several people ask me recently what these stunning birds are.

     This is the time when these small, brightly colored active little birds are flittering their way through North America on their way to their ancestral breeding grounds. Many warblers spend the winter in Central and South America returning to different areas within North America to breed. Many of the species we see just travel through Iowa and don’t stay to nest.

     They stop often to feed and refuel from the energy expended during their long flight, which can cover more than a thousand miles. Warblers are primarily insect eaters, but some will also eat nectar and berries. I bet you have observed them hurriedly bouncing among the tree tops or in bushes as they glean spiders and tiny insects from around the flowers and new leaves of our trees and shrubs. They seem to constantly on the move on their quest to find food.

     Warblers are usually smaller than sparrows and have short, thin, pointed beaks. They travel in migrating flocks sometimes mixed with other species – sometimes referred to as “waves.” These flocks are hard not to notice when they arrive, as it seems the trees are almost alive with the movement of birds on the wing. In addition to their constant motion male warblers sing varied high-pitched songs. A wonderful website to learn about their songs and tips to help identify each species can be found at

     It’s easy to enjoy the warbler migration simply grab your binoculars, favorite bird field guide, and a good comfortable lawn chair and recline as you watch the tree tops in your backyard. If you are in luck and the warblers are in your neighborhood you will be in for some fast flying action and page turning as you try to identify your visitors. A good camera is also handy – so you can take photos of your visitors to look at while you try to ID them. They are notoriously bad at staying still and waiting for you to get a good long look.

     A few of the standouts that are on their way through include the yellow warbler, with the male being completely yellow and sporting rusty breast streaks. They prefer shrubby areas near water. The common yellowthroat is a wren like warbler with males having a black mask. Both the male and female have yellow throats with a mostly yellow body and white belly. They also prefer wet areas and will stick around to nest in Iowa.

     The black-and-white warbler, as its name implies, is black and white with a black and white striped crown and white stripes on their backs. They often creep along the branches and tree trunks similar to the nuthatch and can be found nesting in our wooded valleys.

     Another warbler with a self-describing names is the yellow rumped warbler. Yellow rumped warblers are easily recognized by their bright yellow rump and their loud “check” call. In the spring males are a blue gray color with a heavy black breast patch in the shape of an upside down U. Males also have a yellow patch on their crown and in front of their wing.

     Records of weather radar in Iowa have shown that warblers prefer clear nights with light winds for their migration flights. They also seem to prefer to follow river corridors and will make stops at quality wetlands and in wooded habitat around large lakes and reservoirs.

     Watch a short educational video on identifying warblers put together by the Cornel Lab of Ornithology at If you are interested in how to make your property more warbler-friendly, check out the Guide to Managing and Protecting Your Land for Neotropical Migratory Bird Species at

     I hope you will make some time to enjoy our migrating spring warblers.



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