Priority Bird
Conservation status Undoubtedly declined in past with clearing of southern swamp forests. Still fairly common in remaining habitat. Has been helped in some areas by conservationists putting up birdhouses.
Family Wood Warblers
Habitat Wooded swamps. Breeds in flooded river bottom hardwoods including black willow, ash, buttonbush, sweetgum, red maple, hackberry, river birch, and elm; or wetlands with bay trees surrounded by cypress swamp. Also nests near borders of lakes, rivers and ponds, normally only in areas with slow moving or standing water. Winters in the tropics in lowland woods and mangrove swamps.
In southeastern swamps in summer, this bright golden warbler sings from high in the trees. It is unique among eastern warblers in its habit of nesting in holes in trees, rather than in the open; it will sometimes nest in birdhouses placed close to the water. The name 'Prothonotary' originally referred to a group of official scribes in the Catholic Church who wore bright yellow hoods, as this bird appears to do.

Feeding Behavior

Feeds by gleaning insects among foliage, normally low down among thickets, and usually above water. Sometimes hops about on floating drift wood and mossy logs, peeping into crevices. May occasionally forage by winding its way up the trunks of trees like a nuthatch.


4-6, sometimes 3-8. Creamy or pink, with spots of brown. Incubation is by female, 12-14 days. Young: Fed by both parents. Leave nest 10-11 days after hatching. Supposedly can swim at fledging. 2 broods per year.


Fed by both parents. Leave nest 10-11 days after hatching. Supposedly can swim at fledging. 2 broods per year.


Insects and snails. Feeds on adult insects and larvae (especially aquatic insects), ants, caterpillars, mayflies, beetles, and other insects; also snails and other small mollusks, spiders, and some seeds.


Males arrive on nesting grounds in early April, about a week before females. Males establish territories by singing, vigorous displays, chases, and fighting. Males place small amounts of moss into the nest cavity, building dummy nests, but only female builds real nest. Male displays intensively to the female during courtship by fluffing plumage, and spreading wings and tail. Nest site usually 5-10' up (sometimes 3-30' up), above standing water in hole in tree or stump. Cavities are often old Downy Woodpecker nests. Sometimes excavates its own hole in very rotten stumps, and will use birdhouses. Female fills nest cavity nearly to the entrance hole with moss, dry leaves, twigs and bark; then lines it with rootlets and bark strips.

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

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Migrates relatively early in both spring and fall, with peaks in many areas during April and August. A very rare stray in the west, mostly in fall.

  • 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 a ringing sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet; also a canary-like flight song. Call a loud, metallic chip.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.