Bird Lore: Orange-crowned Warbler

Photos by LeRoy Van Hee
Photo by LeRoy Van Hee

Most New World warblers are neotropic migrants. That means they migrate to the U.S. and Canada from Central and South America during the spring months. They breed here and then return to Central or South America in the fall. The Orange-crowned Warbler is one of the few all-(North) American warblers. It has no niche to fill in either Central or South America. It rarely even ventures into Mexico.

Many warblers are multi-colored knockouts with complex songs in spring. The Orange-crowned Warbler is an overall drab yellow or grayish-yellow bird with a back that is a little darker than its undersides. Those underparts often can show soft or shadowy streaks. It has thin eye arcs that are often not noticed. It is rare to see the orange crown from which it gets its name. The bird has to raise the feathers on top of its head for that orange crown to be visible. Many experienced birders have seen it only rarely, if at all.

The Orange-crowned Warbler breeds in the West and across Canada. It then retreats to the Gulf Coast and lower Eastern Seaboard for the winter. It breeds throughout Washington and is an uncommon winter resident in Western Washington. On a good winter’s day of birding, one or two may be found in Edmonds, often at a yard feeder but sometimes around the marsh.

Look from ground level up to about thirty feet for the Orange-crowned Warbler. It is a busy warbler, constantly foraging through the foliage of a tree or bush. It works thoroughly but quickly, making short hops and head-jerking inspections as it looks for insects or the occasional berry. You can sometimes see it stretch its neck and flutter its wings to reach an insect. It sometimes hangs upside down while foraging and it can also be seen sallying out from a tree to snatch insects in midair.

The Orange-crowned Warbler has one brood a year. The nest is on the ground, protected by overhanging branches, or is low in a shrub. The female incubates the eggs but both parents feed the young. A few days after they leave the nest, the young are pretty much on their own.

The migrants arrive early in spring and leave over a long period in the fall. Those that do not overwinter here have headed south by the end of October. Washington Orange-crowned Warblers probably overwinter in Southern California and southern parts of Arizona. At this link you can listen to the song of a spring bird recorded at English Camp on San Juan Island:

– By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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