Cape May Warbler
At a Glance
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.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Perching Birds, Wood Warblers
Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Flitter
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
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.
5" (13 cm). Adult male striking with sharp black stripes on yellow breast, rich chestnut ear patch, yellow spot on side of neck. Yellow-green patch on rump sometimes visible. Female similar but duller, without chestnut ear patch. Fall immatures variable; dullest ones lack yellow, can be perplexing. May suggest "Myrtle," but show more fine dark streaks on underparts, shorter tail, hint of pale neck spot.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Green, Red, White, Yellow
Songs and Calls
Song is 4 or more high thin notes without change in pitch or volume, seet-seet-seet-seet.
Buzz, Chirp/Chip, Hi, Whistle
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.
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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.
Probably fed by both parents. Age at which young leave the nest is not well known.
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.
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.
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.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Cape May Warbler. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Cape May Warbler
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.