Conservation status Numbers rise and fall, increasing during population explosions of spruce budworm and other insects in northern forests. Apparently has become more common overall in recent decades.
Family Wood Warblers
Habitat Spruce forest; other trees in migration. Breeds in spruce forest, either in pure stands or mixed with firs or other trees, generally in more open woods or near the forest edge. During migration often favors conifers, but also forages in deciduous trees and thickets. In Florida and the West Indies in winter, often feeds in the crowns of palm trees.
Many of our migratory warblers seem to lead double lives, and the Cape May is a good example. It summers in northern spruce woods, but winters in the Caribbean, where it is often seen in palm trees. In summer it eats insects, but during migration and winter it varies its diet with nectar from flowers and with juice that it obtains by piercing fruit. Birders easily recognize the tiger-striped males in spring, but drab fall birds can be perplexing.

Feeding Behavior

On the breeding grounds, feeds mainly out at the tips of branches of spruce trees. Will hang head downward at the tips of branches to pick insects from the undersides of needles. Often flies out several feet to catch flying insects in mid-air. In winter, may defend flowering plants from hummingbirds and other nectar feeders.


6-7, sometimes 4-9. May lay more eggs during outbreaks of spruce budworm. Eggs whitish with red-brown spots. Probably incubated by female, unknown number of days. Young: Probably fed by both parents. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


Probably fed by both parents. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.


Mostly insects, some fruit, nectar. Diet includes spruce budworms, parasitic wasps and flies, ants, bees, small moths, beetles, leafhoppers, also spiders. In migration, may pierce grapes and drink the juice. Also feeds on sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers. Unique among warblers, the Cape May has a tubular tongue; in winter, it feeds heavily on flower nectar and fruit juices.


Male defends nesting territory against other Cape Mays and other warbler species. During courtship, male displays by flying above female with wings held stiffly out. Nest: Placed very close to the top of a 35-60' spruce or fir, in thick foliage against trunk. Nest is cup-shaped and made of moss, vines, weeds; lined thickly with feathers and fur. Probably built by female. Nest is very hard to find because female flies into the tree low and then sneaks up the trunk to enter the nest; when leaving it, she moves down the trunk instead of flying directly away.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

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Migrates mostly at night. Moves north from Caribbean mostly through Florida in spring. Many move south along Atlantic Coast in early fall. A few linger to late fall or even winter, especially outside normal range.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

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Songs and Calls

Song is 4 or more high thin notes without change in pitch or volume, seet-seet-seet-seet.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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