The tiny, green and gold Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor), contrary to its common name, is a bird not of grasslands, but of large areas of shrubland. In our area, this means powerline cuts and overgrown old fields with dense areas of shrubs or young trees, especially conifers. The disappearance of these once-common habitats has contributed to a long term decline in this striking bird’s numbers over most of its range.
The male is extraordinarily beautiful when seen well, with flashy bright yellow underparts accented by bold, black streaking on the flanks, which extend all the way up to the bird’s face, where the bird sports a black eyeline and black “mustache” stripe. The mostly olive-green upperparts are overlaid on the back with some thin chestnut-colored stripes, two pale yellow wing bars, and two often-concealed white tail stripes. All of this remarkable color and pattern is compressed onto the plumage of a bird slightly smaller even than our familiar Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). The female’s plumage, though still bright yellow below, resembles a somewhat faded version of the male’s. The tail is occasionally twitched in the manner of a Palm Warbler, though not as frequently.
The Prairie Warbler’s song is a distinctive rising series of high-pitched, buzzy notes, given by the male on prominent perches in the breeding territory.
This bird visits the Northeast only to breed, migrating to the West Indies and southern Florida for the winter, and is present in our area from late April through October. The nest, mainly composed of grayish plant fibers, is placed in a shrub or small tree, often only a few feet from the ground.
Maintain shrubby and other early successional habitat to provide breeding conditions for the Prairie Warbler.