Cerulean warbler
Dendroica cerulea
ITIS Species Code:   178903         NatureServ Element Code:   ABPBX03240
NatureServe Global Rank: 
NatureServe State (NC) Rank: 
Federal Status: 
NC State Status: 
Southern Blue Ridge:  26 Southern Piedmont:  27 South Atl. Coastal Plain:  25
Land Unit

US Fish & Wildlife Service
US Forest Service
US National Park Service
US Department of Defense
NC State Parks
NC University System
NC Wildlife Res. Com.
NC Forest Service
NC Div. of Coastal Mgmt.
Local Governments
Non-Governmental Org.
Other Public Lands
Private Lands

GAP Status 1-2
All Protected Lands




% of Dist. on
Prot. Lands

1.4 %
68.2 %
< 0.1 %
20.4 %
1.8 %
0.2 %
3.5 %
0.5 %
0.0 %
2.8 %
2.8 %
< 0.1 %
0.0 %

33.4 %
% of Dist. on
All Lands

0.4 %
20.3 %
< 0.1 %
6.1 %
0.5 %
< 0.1 %
1.0 %
0.1 %
0.0 %
0.4 %
0.9 %
< 0.1 %
70.1 %

10.0 %
Breeding has been documented only in the mountain region (Pearson 1959, Potter et al. 1980), but one author suggests the species may be extending its range eastward into the piedmont and coastal plain (Dunn and Garrett1997).

Requires large tracts of mature hardwood forests with closed canopies and sub-canopies and an open understory, often near water (Dunn and Garrett 1997). Cerulean Warblers in North Carolina are generally found in cove hardwood forests with an abundance of tulip poplar (Simpson 1992).

Nest placed 15-50 feet above ground, away from the trunk on a horizontal limb of a deciduous tree (Ehrlich et al. 1988). Forage high in the canopy, in the upper half of trees that may be of greater diameter than average (Robbins, Fitzpatrick, and Hamel 1992).


BREEDING: A tentative description of the characteristics of breeding habitat is a structurally mature hardwood forest in a mesic or wetter situation, with a closed canopy. The size of the trees is of primary importance and their species identity secondary. Landscape situation and context has a strong bearing on whether otherwise suitable breeding habitat will actually contain warblers (Hamel 1992). Habitat is frequently described as mature deciduous forest, particularly in floodplains or other mesic conditions (Robbins et al. 1992 in Tennessee and Maryland; Kahl et al. 1985 in Missouri). Territories in central and western Tennessee are found in forest stands with numerous large trees. Within the stands, territories are located in the areas with more large trees than is typical for the stand and are absent from the portions with small trees (Hamel 1988, Robbins et al. 1992). Observations of the utilization of forest vegetation found birds in the tree canopy, almost always above the midpoint of the tree, at an average height of 17 m in a 22-m-tall tree. These results somewhat contradict the statements of Morse (1989, citing Anderson and Shugart 1974), that this warbler utilizes habitat components in proportion to their availability.

Robbins et al. (1989) found occurrences to be associated with large tracts of mature, semi-open deciduous forest in Maryland and adjacent states. Distribution of breeding birds was positively correlated with the natural log of forest area (P < 0.01) and the square root of tree basal area (P < 0.05), and negatively correlated with the arcsine of percent canopy cover by coniferous trees (P < 0.05). In Missouri, Kahl et al. (1985, cited in Robbins et al. 1992), found that habitat around song perches was most consistently characterized by a large number of live stems > 30 cm dbh (range = 50-150 per ha), and a high (always > 18 m), closed canopy (> 85%, never < 65%). Other important features included an intermediate number of woody stems < 2.5 cm dbh (1,030-2,800 per ha, never < 1,030), and few dead stems 2.5-9.9 cm dbh (always < 175 per ha).

In North Carolina, a disjunct population occurs in the old-growth, mature floodplain forest communities of well-drained natural levees within 330 m of the Roanoke River (Lynch 1981, cited in Robbins et al. 1992). The dominant canopy species are sycamore (PLATANUS OCCIDENTALIS), green ash (FRAXINUS PENNSYLVANICA), and sugarberry (CELTIS LAEVIGATA). These communities are characterized by a closed canopy ranging in height from 24-30 m, a distinct shrub layer, and complete ground cover. In the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee, a dense population occurs at Frozen Head State Natural Area (C.P. Nicholson, pers. comm.). This area's second-growth forest is in advanced growth, with a high, closed canopy of large trees similar to those described above, in mesic cove and slope topography. Forest composition is of a diverse assemblage of hardwood trees. In North Carolina, also found in mature cove hardwood forests on relatively steep slopes with little understory (H. LeGrand, pers. comm.).

Placement of the nest has been described differently by various authors. Nests in tall tree, about 4.5-27 m up (typically high in tree), well out on large branch, often [apparently] near forest opening. More information is needed on nest site preferences, especially the relationship (if any) to canopy gaps (Hamel 1992). Previous summaries of breeding habitat from studies in the 1980s indicate that the forest in which the birds breed is one with a closed canopy. Bent (1953) states that '...the nest is usually placed...over an opening [sic].' A nest discovered in central Tennessee in 1950 was built in an elm at the edge of an opening beside a farmhouse (K.A. Goodpasture, pers. comm.). Bent (1953) describes a nest site that was five meters out on a limb of a tulip-tree (LIRIODENDRON TULIPIFERA), and 14.8 m up '....with no other limb between it and the ground.' Harrison (1984) presents a photograph of breeding habitat which shows a discontinuous canopy edge at a forest road.

Several important questions arise from these conflicting indications of nesting habitat. Do cerulean warblers usually nest in continuous, unbroken forest? Do they build their nests in the canopy of the forest where little other vegetation occurs between the nest and the groundcover? Do they typically build their nests in association with canopy gaps in otherwise unbroken forest? Are they indifferent to nest situation, using closed canopy forest, canopy gaps, and the edge between forest and other land uses in proportion to their availability? The literature is insufficiently clear to distinguish these alternatives. Observer bias is certainly possible in reporting nest locations when nest searches were haphazard, as was almost certainly the case in the existing literature. In such a case, nests built in locations that are easy to find would appear with greater relative frequency in the literature than in the field. One further possibility is that current observations may not reflect the preferences of the birds as they existed in the past. Instead, the current situation may be only a remnant of the actual capability of the birds; a remnant produced by the action of limiting factors (Hamel 1992).

NON-BREEDING: Concentrated on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in western South America. Elevational range is limited to the lower slopes between 500-1,500 m, in precisely the elevation at which human habitat encroachment is proceeding most rapidly (Skutch, cited in Bent 1953; J. Fitzpatrick and S. Robinson, pers. comms.). The winter habitat is mature deciduous forest, also with large trees, although quantitative measurements are so far lacking. This recent information is different than that quoted by Bent (1953, referring to Taczanowski) that the birds range between 10,000-13,000 ft (3,000-4,000 m) in the Peruvian Andes. Terborgh (1989) associates cerulean warblers with montane forests of middle elevations in the Northern Andes. He further indicates that this warbler does not accept disturbed habitats. In migration, occurs in various forest, woodland, second growth, and scrub habitats; forest canopy, gaps and edges, semi-open areas, usually high in trees (Stiles and Skutch 1989). In winter, occurs in forest and woodland borders on mountain slopes, primarily in tall, primary, evergreen forest (Robbins et al. 1992) (deciduous, according to Hamel 1992).

Occupied Landcover Map Units:
Code NameDescription NC Natural Heritage Program Equivalent
75 Tidal Swamp Forest Swamp tupelo dominated forest with or without black tupelo and/or cypress trees. Restricted to the tidal zones in the coastal plain. May have inclusions of coastal red cedar woodlands. Tidal cypress - gum swamp
50 Coastal Plain Mixed Bottomland Forests Includes forests dominated by a variety of hardwood species, including sweetgum, cottonwood, red maple. Coastal Plain Bottomland Hardwood (in part), Coastal Plain Levee Forest
49 Coastal Plain Oak Bottomland Forest Bottomland forests dominated by deciduous oak alliances. Oaks represented can include swamp chestnut, cherrybark, willow, and/or overcup oak. Inclusions of loblolly pine temporarily flooded forests occur in patches. Hydrology is temporarily to seasonally flooded. Coastal Plain Bottomland Hardwoods (in part) blackwater subtype, brownwater subtype
158 Coastal Plain Nonriverine Wet Flat Forests Loblolly pine - Atlantic white-cedar - red maple - swamp tupelo saturated forests as well as forests dominated by loblolly, sweetgum, and red maple in non-riverine flats. Non-riverine Wet Hardwood Forest
30 Cypress-Gum Floodplain Forests Swamps dominated by black or swamp tupelo with or without Taxodium. Seasonally to semi-permanently flooded hydrology. Cypress-Gum Swamps
385 Oak Bottomland Forest and Swamp Forest The swamp chestnut oak, cherrybark oak, shumard oak and sweetgum alliance is one representative. Other alliances are dominated by water, willow, and overcup oaks. Swamp forests can be dominated by sweetgum, red maple, and black gum being dominant. Loblolly can occur in combination with sweetgum and red maple, or with tulip poplar. Includes saturated and semi- to permanently flooded forests in the mountains. Piedmont/Mountain Bottomland Forest, Piedmont/Mountain Swamp Forest
384 Piedmont/Mountain Mixed Bottomland Hardwood Forests Includes temporarily to seasonally forests dominated by hardwood species. Hardwoods include sweetgum, red maple, sycamore which co-occur in a mosaic of bottomland and levee positions. Includes alluvial hardwood forests in the mountains. Hemlock and white pine may occur as inclusions, but are generally mapped separately. Piedmont/Mountain Alluvial Forest, Piedmont/Mountain Levee Forest
383 Piedmont Mixed Successional Forest Generally loblolly mixed with successional hardwoods. Sweetgum, tulip poplar and red maple are common co-dominants in these successional forests. No equivalent
228 Piedmont Dry-Mesic Oak and Hardwood Forests Primarily oak dominated forests, white oak is often dominant, with co-dominants including . Also represented by sweetgum and tulip poplar dominated forests. Dry Mesic Oak Hickory Forest, Basic Oak Hickory Forest, Dry Oak Hickory Forest
522 Northern Hardwoods High Elevation forests including yellow birch, American beech, and yellow buckeye. Includes forests with Hemlock and Yellow Birch. Northern Hardwoods Forest, Boulderfield Forest
525 Appalachian Oak Forest A variety of oak forest types including Black, White, Scarlet Oaks in dry to mesic situations. Includes forests historically co-dominated by American Chestnut. High Elevation Red Oak Forest, Montane White Oak Forest
526 Appalachian Cove Forest Mixed Mesophytic forests of the mountains. Includes tuliptree, basswood, yellow buckeye and surgar maple. This class is mapped to include cove forests dominated or co-dominated by hemlock. Rich Cove Forest, Acidic Cove Forest
530 Appalachian Xeric Deciduous Forest Deciduous forests in the mountains dominated by Xeric Oak species. Species include, white, Southern red, black, and rock chestnut. High Elevation Red Oak Forest, Montane White Oak Forest
View Entire Landcover Legend
Additional Spatial Constraints:
Exclude all area outside of known range.
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Greenlaw, J. S., and J. Swinebroad. 1967. A method for constructing and erecting areal nets in a forest. Bird-Banding 38:114-9.

Humphrey, P. S., D. Bridge, and T. E. Lowjoy. 1968. A technique for mist-netting in the forest canopy. Bird-Banding 39:43-50.

Anderson, S. H., and H. H. Shugart, Jr. 1974. Habitat selection of breeding birds in an east Tennessee deciduous forest. Ecology 55:828-37.

Lynch, J. M. 1981. Status of the cerulean warbler in the Roanoke River Basin of North Carolina. Chat 45(2):29-35.

Robbins, C.S., J.W. Fitzpatrick, and P.B. Hamel. 1992. A warbler in trouble:DENDROICA CERULEA. Pages 549-562 in J.M. Hagan III and D.W. Johnston, editors. Ecology and conservation of neotropical migrant landbirds. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington

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Chapman, F. M. 1917. The warblers of North America. D. Appleton-Century Co. Reprint edition 1968, Dover Publications, New York, New York.

Howell, A.H. 1924. Birds of Alabama. Dept. Game and Fish of Alabama, and U.S. Dept. Agric., Bur. Biol. Surv., Montgomery, Alabama. 348 pp.

Todd, W. E. C. 1940. Birds of western Pennsylvania. Carnegie Museum, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 710 pp.

Bent, A.C. 1953. Life histories of North American wood warblers. U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. 203. Washington, D.C.

Brauning, D. W., editor. 1992. Atlas of breeding birds in Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 484 pp.

Maser, C., 1988. The Redesigned Forest. Miles, R. and E. Miles. San Pedro, California. 234 pp.

Warren, B. H. 1890. Report on the birds of Pennsylvania. 2nd Edition. Pennsylvania State Boad Agric., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 434 pp.

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Nicholson, C. TVA Regional Heritage, River Basin Operations, Wildlife & Natural Heritage Resources, Norris, TN 37828. Pers. comm.

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Bevier, L. R., editor. 1994. The atlas of breeding birds of Connecticut. State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut Bull. 113. xvii + 461 pp.

Dunn, J.L., and K.L. Garrett. 1997. A field guide to warblers of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

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Robbins, C.S., D.K. Dawson, and B.A. Dowell. 1989. Habitat area requirements of breeding forest birds of the Middle Atlantic states. Wildlife Monographs No. 103.

LeGrand, Harry E. Jr. NC Natural Heritage Program. Division of Parks and Recreation, Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, 512 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27611. 919-733-7701. Personal communication.

Clench, M. H., and R. C. Leberman. 1978. Weights of 151 species of Pennsylvania birds analyzed by month, age, and sex. Bull. Carnegie Mus. Nat. Hist. No. 5, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 87 pp.

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Salzman, E. 1983. Cerulean warbler breeding in Suffolk County. Kingbird 33(2):105.

Gustafson, D. K. 1985. forest island size and matrix interactions with avian trophic groups in southeastern Wisconsin (Biogeograpy). University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ph.D. dissertation. 189 pp. (Abstract).

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Hamel, P.B. 1988. Unrefuted hypotheses of habitat selection by Cerulean Warblers (DENDROICA CERULEA) in Tennessee. American Ornithologists' Union, 106th meeting, Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Abstract).

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Harrison, H.H. 1975. A field guide to bird's nests in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. 257 p.

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Kahl, R. B., T. S. Baskett, J. A. Ellis, and J. N. Burroughs. 1985. Characteristics of summer habitats of selected nongame birds in Missouri. Univeristy of Missouri-Columbia College of Agriculture, Agricultural Experiment Station, Research Bulletin 1056:5

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Harrison, H.H. 1984. Wood warblers' world. Simon and Schuster, New York. 335 pp.

Harris, L. D. 1984. The fragmented forest:island biogeography theory and the preservation of biotic diversity. Univ. Chicago Press. xviii + 212 pp.

Laughlin, S. B., and D. P. Kibbe, editors. 1985. The atlas of breeding birds of Vermont. University Press of New England, Hanover Vermont. 456 pp.

Cadman, M.D., P.F.J. Eagles, and F.M. Helleiner. 1987. Atlas of the breeding birds of Ontario. University of Waterloo Press, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. 615 pp.

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Andrle, R.F., and J.R. Carroll. 1988. The atlas of breeding birds in New York State. Cornell Univ., Ithaca, New York. 551 pp.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook:a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Shuster, Inc., New York. xxx + 785 pp.

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Stiles, F.G., and A.F. Skutch. 1989. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Publ. Associates, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. 511 pp.

10 March 2005
This data was compiled and/or developed by the North Carolina GAP Analysis Project.

For more information please contact them at:
NC-GAP Analysis Project
Dept. of Zoology, NCSU
Campus Box 7617
Raleigh, NC 27695-7617
(919) 513-2853