Dendroica discolorprairie warbler

Geographic Range

Prairie warblers (Dendroica discolor) have a wide range across North and Central America. The native breeding range of one prairie warbler subspecies, Dendroica discolor discolor, covers the eastern United States. Populations can be found from Georgia, west to northeastern Texas in the south, and to New York, Massachusetts, and southern Ontario in the north. Several isolated populations are located in Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas. This distribution is uneven, and as much as 96 percent of the prairie warbler population is estimated to breed in the southeastern United States. In winter, prairie warblers migrate to southern Florida and Caribbean islands in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. A smaller population is known to winter on the eastern coast of southern Mexico, going south through Honduras. Another subspecies, Dendroica discolor paludicola, has resident populations restricted to coastal Florida. ("Dendroica discolor. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012 e.T22721725A39850788", 2012; Nolan, 1978; Wells, 2007)


During their summer breeding season, prairie warblers are found in pine forests, abandoned agricultural fields, the borders between forests and grasslands, and dune habitats. They are less common in denser forests. During winter, they live in desert washes, scrubs, pine forests, and mangroves. They are also found in citrus groves and coffee fields on some islands. This species is not generally found above 1220 m elevation. Florida prairie warblers (D. d. paludicola) are restricted to mangrove swamps year-round. ("Dendroica discolor. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012 e.T22721725A39850788", 2012; Buerkle, 2000; Faaborg and Latta, 2001; Nolan, 1978)

  • Range elevation
    1220 (high) m
    4002.62 (high) ft

Physical Description

Prairie warblers are small; they weigh between 6.4 and 8.8 g and are 11 cm long on average. Both sexes have yellow coloring on their faces and undersides, and olive coloring on their heads and backs. They often have chestnut streaks along their back as well. They have long white tail feathers and yellow wing-bars. Males have black markings on their faces, with notable semicircles below their eyes. Females are duller in comparison to males, with an olive color where males have black. Juvenile prairie warblers have duller pigmentation and weaker or absent markings on their body. Florida prairie warblers (D. d. paludicola) have less white on their tails. Prairie warblers are similar in appearance to other warbler species. Pine warblers (Dendroica pinus) are most similar, but pine warblers are bigger, have lighter markings, and do not have chestnut patches on their backs. Magnolia warblers (Dendroica magnolia) may be mistaken for juvenile prairie warblers, but magnolia warblers have gray heads and yellow rears. (Buerkle, 2000; Nolan Jr., et al., 2014; Stephenson and Whittle, 2013)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    6.4 to 8.8 g
    0.23 to 0.31 oz
  • Average length
    11 cm
    4.33 in


Every breeding season prairie warblers form mating pairs. After they migrate north, males establish territories and sing to attract females. Encounters between males and females may result in sexual chases, where males attempt to catch and pull the tail feathers of females. Female will either escape, or drive off males after 2 to 6 seconds of tail pulling. Males are always rejected at this stage. Alternatively, males will perform display flights during encounters with females. A behavior known as "pounce-on-female" is similar to a sexual chase, but ends with females turning around towards males, and entering a defensive posture. Males will then either leave or attempt to sing to otherwise entice females before leaving. This behavior becomes more common two or more days after pairs first meet. According to Nolan (1978), it is difficult to tell whether a pair will stay together until egg laying occurs, and females may abandon males even during nest construction. (Nolan, 1978)

Prairie warblers will breed up to two times per year. Their primary breeding season begins from April to May and ends between June and July. A second breeding attempt may occur in June or July and end in August. This happens if the first breeding event occurs early enough in the season, or if it fails. Females have an average clutch size of 4 eggs, which hatch an average of 12 days after being laid. Hatchlings weigh between 0.8 and 1.4 g at birth. Hatchlings fledge an average of 9 days after birth, after which they begin to leave the nest. Over the next 40 days, on average, fledglings stay with their parents, who provide them with food. Fledglings begin to forage for themselves after about 10 days and are able to fly and fully care for themselves after about 24 days. In total, fledglings become independent 34 to 55 days after they are born. Prairie warblers become sexually mature at approximately a year old. Female prairie warblers build a nest consisting of an outer layer of plant bark, a padding layer made of feathers, fur or soft plant seeds, and a lining made of grass, fur, feathers and/or ferns. Nests have an average outer diameter of 60 mm, with a 42 mm average inner diameter. Nests are sometimes reused by different females in subsequent years. (Nolan, 1978)

  • Breeding interval
    prairie warblers breed once in the late spring, with a second breeding season during late summer
  • Breeding season
    May through August
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 5
  • Range time to hatching
    10.5 to 14.5 days
  • Average time to hatching
    12 days
  • Range fledging age
    8 to 11 days
  • Average fledging age
    9.4 days
  • Range time to independence
    34 to 55 days
  • Average time to independence
    40.8 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Paired prairie warblers help raise their young until they are independent – around 40 days after hatching. Females incubate the eggs while males forage for themselves and their mates. After eggs hatch, females spend time foraging instead of incubating. Newborn prairie warblers are unable to feed or care for themselves, so parents care for their young until they leave the nest. Once juveniles are independent, they often leave by themselves, but sometimes will be driven away by their parents. (Nolan Jr., et al., 2014)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Little information is known about the lifespan of prairie warblers. The oldest-recorded bird was 10.3 years old. Survivorship and lifespan estimates are complicated by their migratory nature. No average lifespan data, either in the wild or captivity, is available as of 2015. (Klimkiewicz, et al., 1983)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    10.3 (high) years


Prairie warblers primarily travel by flying, but will hop when they need to move short distances along the ground. Prairie warblers are not usually social outside of breeding season, and generally hunt on their own. Males often engage in territorial fights, and will chase other males out of their territory. Males also fly into the territories of other males until chased out. Some fights may attract males and females from the surrounding area. Prairie warblers are active during the day and twilight, and sleep at night. They forage most intensely around dusk, but they hunt throughout the day. Tail-bobbing, preening, and bathing are commonly observed behaviors for this species. (Nolan Jr., et al., 2014)

  • Range territory size
    2400 to 35000 m^2
  • Average territory size
    15600 m^2

Home Range

During their breeding season, prairie warblers have territories averaging 15.6 square km. Territory sizes depend on local population density. Prairie warblers have been recorded with territory sizes as small as 2.4 square km and as large as 35 square km. Male prairie warblers claim territory as they arrive to breeding grounds after spring migration. They sing to establish the boundaries of their territories, and chase away male rivals in their territory. Males attempt to reclaim their territory from previous breeding seasons, and try to displace any rivals already present. Insufficient evidence exists on whether prairie warblers are territorial outside of breeding season. (Nolan Jr., et al., 2014; Prather and Cruz, 1995)

Communication and Perception

Prairie warblers forage using sight. They also communicate to each other using songs, calls, and visual displays. Males have specific songs and calls for mate attraction and others for general social interactions, such as territorial conflicts. Songs are usually made up of 4 to 20 notes, while calls are usually one note. Prairie warblers use calls to establish contact between birds or warn of nearby predators. Female prairie warblers have been only rarely observed to sing. Males perform special display flights as part of their mating display. Both sexes give specific displays if threatened, crouching rigidly and facing the threat directly. Males also perform submissive displays, such as turning away from other males. (Nolan Jr., et al., 2014)

Food Habits

Prairie warblers are primarily insectivorous, eating a variety of arthropods. Less-frequently, they eat gastropods, seeds, and fruit. Prairie warblers hunt in a variety of locations within their habitats. They will feed on the ground, perched on tree trunks, or in the treetops. They are most commonly observed foraging on tree branches and fly-catching.

Stomach content tests on prairie warblers in their breeding range found that the animal matter in their stomachs consisted of 42% beetles (Coleoptera), 29% moths or butterflies (Lepidoptera), 8% flies (Diptera), 8% ants, wasps, or bees (Hymenoptera), 3% spiders (Araneae), 4% aphids or cicadas (Homoptera), and 1% other bug species (Hemiptera). There is less data available on their winter range diets, but present data suggest that they not change significantly from their summer range.

D. d. paludicola has the same general diet, but with a higher occurrence of spiders fewer beetles. Also, the prey species eaten by this subspecies of prairie warbler were more likely to be aquatic. (Nolan, 1978)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


Prairie warblers are most at risk of predation before they hatch or while they are fledging. Adults are not generally subject to predation, although nesting females may be killed by nest predators. Frequent predators of nestlings and eggs include squirrel species (Sciurus), eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus), raccoons (Procyon lotor), species of deer mouse (Peromyscus), and local snake species, such as mangrove water snakes (Nerodia compressicauda). Fledglings are also targeted by chipmunk species (Tamias) and snakes. Additional predators include red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus).

Prairie warblers have behavioral adaptions to ward off predators. Adult birds sound alarm calls to warn nearby birds – especially fledglings – of predators. Groups of prairie warblers have been reported to mob snakes who get close to their nesting sites. Nesting prairie warblers also perform distraction displays at threatening animals. They do this by perching on branches away from their nests while performing a distracting display and making loud calls. (Nolan Jr., et al., 2014; Prather and Cruz, 1995)

Ecosystem Roles

Prairie warblers hunt a variety of arthropod species. They serve as hosts for a variety of parasitic species, including northern fowl mites (Ornithonyssus sylviarum), harvest mites (Trombicula), rabbit ticks (Haemaphysalis leporispalustris), feather lice (Menacanthus and Ricinus), and scaly leg mites (Knemidokoptes jamaicensis). They also host unidentified nematode species.

Prairie warblers are also victims of brood parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis). Up to 40% of prairie warbler nests may suffer from cowbird parasitism, with nests early in the breeding season having higher incidences of parasitism. Brown-headed cowbirds are a common source of nest failure in prairie warblers due to nest abandonment. Scaly leg mites (Knemidokoptes jamaicensis) have been linked to stress and muscle loss in warblers wintering in Jamaica. The prairie warbler subspecies D. d. paludicola is likely to suffer from brood parasitism in the future, as cowbirds (including shiny cowbirds) spread to southern Florida. (Nolan, 1978; Prather and Cruz, 1995)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

As an insectivore, prairie warblers have been shown to help control agricultural pests. This was observed by Kellerman et al. (2008) in Jamaica, where prairie warbler presence was correlated with an increase in coffee production. (Kellermann, et al., 2008)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of prairie warblers on humans.

Conservation Status

Prairie warblers are considered a species of least concern on the IUCN red list and are not on the federal endangered species list. They are also not included in CITES appendices. Prairie warblers are protected under the U.S Migratory Bird Act. While they are currently experiencing population declines, these declines are not severe enough to warrant special status. Declines are due to natural succession of shrubby breeding habitats to unsuitable forested habitats. If steps are not taken to reduce the loss of breeding habitats, population declines will continue and prairie warblers may become a threatened species. Some regional populations are at immediate risk, and they are listed as endangered by the state of Michigan. ("Dendroica discolor. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012 e.T22721725A39850788", 2012; "Dendroica discolor. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012 e.T22721725A39850788", 2012; Nolan Jr., et al., 2014)


Brian Pratt (author), Radford University - Fall 2015, Cari Mcgregor (editor), Radford University, Zeb Pike (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, April Tingle (editor), Radford University, Jacob Vaught (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


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Buerkle, C. 2000. Morphological variation among migratory and nonmigratory populations of prairie warblers. The Wilson Bulletin, 112/1: 99-107.

Faaborg, J., S. Latta. 2001. Winter site fidelity of prairie warblers in the Dominican Republic. The Condor, 103/3: 455-468.

Jackson, W., S. Rohwer. 1989. Within-season breeding dispersal in prairie warblers and other passerines. The Condor, 91/2: 233-241.

Kellermann, J., M. Johnson, A. Stercho, S. Hackett. 2008. Ecological and economic services provided by birds on Jamaican blue mountain coffee farms. Conservation Ecology, 22/5: 1177-1186.

Klimkiewicz, K., C. Klimkiewicz, A. Futcher. 1983. Longevity records of North American birds: Remizidae through Parulinae. Journal of Field Ornithology, 54/3: 293.

Latta, S. 2003. Effects of scaley-leg mite infestations on body condition and site fidelity of migratory warblers in the Dominican Republic. The Auk, 120/3: 730-743.

Morse, D. 1989. American Warblers: An Ecological and Behavioral Perspective. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Nolan Jr., V., E. Ketterson, C. Buerkle. 2014. "Prairie warbler (Setophaga discolor)" (On-line). Birds of North America (on-line). Accessed September 23, 2015 at

Nolan, V. 1978. The ecology and behavior of the prairie warbler, Dendroica discolor. Ornithological Monographs, 1/26: 1-595.

Pease, C., J. Grzybowski. 1995. Assessing the consequences of brood parasitism and nest predation on seasonal fecundity in passerine birds. The Auk, 112/2: 343-363.

Prather, J., A. Cruz. 1995. Breeding biology of Florida prairie warblers and Cuban yellow warblers. Wilson Bulletin, 107/3: 475-484.

Stephenson, T., S. Whittle. 2013. The Warbler Guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wells, J. 2007. Birder's Conservation Handbook. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.