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Bird Wise: Spotlight on yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler (Photo courtesy of Jean Brislance)

Birders in North America eagerly anticipate the spring arrival of migrating wood warblers, a diverse group of small insect-eating species, because of their wonderful colors and songs.

Also, for most birders south of here, the only time they can be seen in full plumage is a 2- to 3-week window of migration in May.

In Minnesota, we are fortunate not only to be able to witness this migration but also to see the great majority of species settle to nest in various parts of the state. Of the 38 species of wood warblers indigenous to eastern North America, 30 are known to breed in Minnesota. Their residence here is brief, though, as most raise only one brood and depart in late August and September to wintering grounds in Central and South America, where insect life is abundant.

A striking exception to this general rule is the yellow-rumped warbler. This species, which nests across northern North America, winters in the central and southern U.S. and northern Mexico.

They can do this because, unlike most of the other species, they are versatile consumers, able to eat various small fruits and seeds which are available in many places in the temperate zone winters.

I used to live in the East and was always impressed by the huge numbers of "yellow-rumps" (also known colloquially as "butter-butts") that could be found in winter along the Atlantic coast. Here, they are able to feed on the prolific bayberries among the coastal dunes and also forage in loose flocks through the tall loblolly pines, mixing with local permanent residents like chickadees and nuthatches.

Because yellow-rumped warblers don't have to go as far as other species between breeding and wintering grounds, they are the first to arrive in the spring and the last to leave in the fall. Their appearance here in April portends the explosion of warbler migration to come in May. Now is the time to see them in full breeding plumage. About the size of a chickadee, the males are easily identified by their bright yellow rumps, large white spots in the tail, yellow on each side of the upper breast, and a bright yellow patch on top of the head. They occur in most habitats, including your backyard, and often make their presence known by swooping out from branches to catch small flying insects. They also will visit feeders now and then, something most other warblers rarely do.

Check them out in your bird guide and take a look outside. With a little effort you should find some between now and May 25. If you are fortunate to have any nesting in coniferous country near you, you will be able to enjoy them for longer.

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