Apr 25, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2018

Watch for Warblers in Your Yard

Just because you've never seen a warbler in your yard doesn't mean they're not there. Your best bet for finding warblers in your yard is to listen for bird sounds you don't recognize coming from the trees.

If the habitat of your yard and neighborhood is suitable—with tall trees and shrubs—it is likely that warblers will be passing through very soon, so start watching for warblers in your yard.

Skeptical? Just because you've never seen a warbler in your yard doesn't mean they're not there. Warblers don't eat seeds or fruit (usually), so it is only on rare occasions that they show up at bird feeders. Some will visit bird baths, especially those that have misters or drippers.

Your best bet for finding warblers in your yard is to listen for bird sounds you don't recognize coming from the trees. Despite the name of the group, few warbler songs are truly musical. Some are a simple bee buzz (blue-winged warbler), or teacher! teacher! teacher! (ovenbird), or a high-pitched trill (pine warbler), or something that sounds like the wheel of a rusty wheelbarrow (black-and-white warbler). You don't have to know the sounds of warblers to spot them, though. Just listen for an unfamiliar sound, then try to find the source.

Warblers can be spectacularly beautiful: orange, blue, shades of brown, and most commonly, yellow. Females aren't as colorful as their mates, but can still be gorgeous. Expect to refer to a field guide to the birds if you decide to take up backyard warbler watching. More than 50 species of warblers regularly breed in North America, but most have limited ranges. In some parts of the country, it's possible to see more than 20 warblers on a good spring day.

Here are some basic warbler watching and identification tips that should make it easier to put a name on any bird.

  • First, decide if what you are looking at is a warbler. Warblers have small, thin bills—among the thinnest of any backyard bird.
  • Start with an overall impression of color and pattern. Many warblers are so striking that you may be tempted to stop there. Don't! An all-yellow bird can be any of a half-dozen warblers, and if all you note is its color, you will end up frustrated. Once you have the general color and pattern, start on the specifics.
  • Start at the head and work down and back. Check the head and face pattern for a cap, eyelines, and color. Face pattern is often critical in identifying similar species.
  • Check for wing bars. Warblers break down into two broad groups: those with wing bars, and those without. Noting whether the bird has wing bars will cut in half the number of species this bird could be.
  • Check the underparts. Are there streaks on its sides or breast? If the bird has yellow on its belly, does it go all the way to the tail, or is it just on the belly?
  • Check its back, if you can see it. Are there streaks or other patterns? It is often difficult to see the back of many warblers because they spend so much time near the treetops. Fortunately, the back pattern is rarely a key characteristic.
  • Check the tail. Many bird watchers forget to check warblers' tails. Some species can be recognized easily by the spots or patches on their tail. A few warblers flash white outer tail feathers. The palm warbler wags its tail distinctively as it forages, often on the ground.
  • Check under the tail. This sounds challenging, but since warblers are so often high above us, seeing their undersides isn't too difficult. The colors of the feathers that extend from the belly to the tail tip can be distinctive in several warbler species. When you find a bird that you don't recognize immediately, work your way quickly through the above checklist. Do this before you turn to the field guide. The bird might fly away before you get a second chance to notice the details. Even if the mystery bird isn't a warbler, taking note of these details will be invaluable in making an ID.

Once you're used to studying a bird from front to back, top to bottom, with this checklist and taking mental notes, it will take only a few seconds, and make the difference between identifying a bird or letting it remain a mystery. After using this checklist a couple of times, it will become second nature, and take your bird ID skills to a new level.

About Bill Thompson, III, and Dawn Hewitt

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018