The Prothonotary Warbler is a fairly common summer resident of the bottomland forests of eastern North America. Despite its somewhat reclusive nature, once found the Prothonotary is difficult to ignore. Its sweet song and bright plumage earn it the enchanting reputation as a “tiny detached bit of golden swamp-fire” (Oberholser 1974). Some admirers of the Prothonotary, including Bent (1953) in his life history of the bird, believe the warbler has been burdened with a cumbersome name. The Latin word Prothonotarius refers to bright yellow robes worn by some papal officials and may in fact reflect the understated elegance of Bent’s “golden swamp warbler.”
DISTRIBUTION: The TBBA data (1987- 1992) indicate the Prothonotary Warbler breeds exclusively in the eastern half of the state, with all records occurring east of the 100th meridian. Additionally, 89% of all records were concentrated in the far eastern portion of the state, east of the 96th meridian.
SEASONAL OCCURRENCE: Most spring migrant Prothonotary Warblers arrive in Texas between late March and mid-May, although some arrive as early as February 21 and as late as June 3. They breed in Texas between mid-April and July. Dates for nests with eggs range from April 25 to June 4 and the late date for fledging is June 22. The majority of fall migrants depart between early August and late September with some individuals leaving as early as July 21 and as late as October 15 (Oberholser 1974). The area checklist for the Austin region cites a record for a fall migrant as late as approximately October 25 (Travis Audubon Society Records Committee 1989). Migrants have been recorded north to Moore County in the Panhandle (Oberholser 1974) and west to El Paso County (El Paso/Trans- Pecos Audubon Society 1987).
Most individuals of this species winter along the coasts of Middle America as far north as the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, in Colombia and Venezuela and on Trinidad and Tobago (Howell and Webb 1995, Petit 1999). In winter Prothonotary Warblers are rare to very rare along the Texas coasts and the lower Rio Grande valley (Lockwood and Freeman 2004).
BREEDING HABITAT: The Prothonotary Warbler, one of just two cavity-nesting wood warblers, is a bird of the bottomlands, bayous, and swamps. Theese warblers build nests in tree cavities, often broken stumps, at heights ranging from 1 to 10 m ( 3 to 32 ft), mostly 1.5 -3 m (5-10 ft) high and above or in close proximity to water (Bent 1953). Size and shape of the cavity seem to be unimportant, but cavities can not be too deep as the warbler fills each with moss, lichens, and other bits of vegetation to within inches of the opening (Bent 1953; Harrison 1975). In the process of nest building, several partial “dummy” nests may be constructed, perhaps as a defense against predators (Blem and Blem 1994)
Prothonotary Warblers lay 3 to 8, usually 5 or 6, eggs in these carefully constructed nests. The eggs are rounded ovate to short ovate, yellowish white, cream white: or buff, glossy and boldly marked (an unusual characteristic for cavity nesters) with colors ranging from lilac to chestnut. (Oberholser 1974),
Suitable cavities are limited and this species is therefore fiercely territorial. In addition to conspecifics, avian competitors include Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Carolina Chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Tufted Titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), and Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus; Blem and Blem 1991). Non-avian competitors include wasps (Blem and Blem 1991) and mice of the genus Peroinyscus, which may also prey upon warbler nestlings (Guillory 1987). Prothonotaries adapt well to artificial nest cavities including nest boxes constructed from milk cartons (Fleming and Petit 1986).
STATUS: Texas is at the southwest corner of the range of Prothonotary Warbler. Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) observers in east Texas recorded this species at rates of <1 to 1-3 birds per 40 km (25 mi) route, typical of most of this warblers range. In contrast, in south-central Louisiana, rates averaged 10-30 birds per route (Sauer et a;. 2005). In Oklahoma atlasers found most breeding in the easter half of the state (Bray 2004). Trend data from 13 BBS routes in Texas for the period 1980-2005 suggest a +2.7% annual population change, similar to the statisrically significant national trend of +2.1% derived from 415 routes (Sauer et al. 2005). Text by Alex Downing-Fink (Posted with updates 2007)
Bent, A. C. 1953. Life histories of North American wood warblers. U. S Natl. Mus. Bull. 203.
Blem, C. R.and L. B . Blem. 1991. Prothonotary Warblers nesting in nest boxes: Clutch size and tining in Virginia, Raven 63: 15-20.
Fleming, W. J. and D. R. Petit 1986. Modified milk carton nest boxes for studies of Prothonotary Warblers. J. Field Ornithol. 57(4).
Guillory H. D. 1987. Cavity competition and suspected predation on Prothonotary Warblers by Peromyscus spp. J. Field Ornithol. 58: 425-427.
Harrison, H. H. 1975. A field guide to birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, New York.
Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas, University of Texas Press, Austin.
Petit, L .J. 1999. Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea. In The birds of North America, No. 408 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2005. Version 6.2 2006. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD < http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs>