Prothonotary warbler
Protonotaria citrea
ITIS Species Code:   178846         NatureServ Element Code:   ABPBX07010
NatureServe Global Rank: 
NatureServe State (NC) Rank: 
Federal Status: 
NC State Status: 
Southern Blue Ridge:  21 Southern Piedmont:  21 South Atl. Coastal Plain:  22
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

33.8 %
6.4 %
12.5 %
< 0.1 %
7.9 %
4.1 %
19.1 %
1.5 %
3.6 %
10.1 %
10.1 %
0.1 %
0.2 %

67.7 %
% of Dist. on
All Lands

3.9 %
0.7 %
1.6 %
< 0.1 %
0.9 %
0.5 %
2.2 %
0.2 %
0.4 %
< 0.1 %
1.2 %
< 0.1 %
88.4 %

7.7 %
Breeds commonly along the coast and throughout the coastal plain (Potter et al. 1980) and less commonly in the piedmont (Pearson 1959). Occasional in the mountain region (Alsop 1991).

Found in flat topographical areas (Nicholson 1997) with moist to wet woods (Fussell 1994), in swamps (especially cypress) and along heavily wooded streams (Potter et al. 1980). Water is almost always present in the form of pools, ponds, or other slow-moving bodies (Dunn and Garrett 1997).

Builds nest inside a cavity of a tree, inside a stump, in the hollowed top of a broken tree (Pearson 1959), or in a cypress knee (Nicholson 1997). Will do some excavation in rotten stumps (Ehrlich et al. 1988). Often uses old woodpecker holes, particularly those of the Downy Woodpecker (Griscom and Sprunt 1957). Will also use nest boxes (Ehrlich et al. 1988) and bird houses, or occasionally nest in sheltered places such as under bridges or in boat houses (Griscom and Sprunt 1957). The nest cavity is often located over water (Ehrlich et al. 1988), but may be far from it (Dunn and Garrett 1997), although those far from water may be in easily flooded areas (Griscom and Sprunt 1957). The cavity is usually less than 6 feet from the ground but may be over 25 feet (Dunn and Garrett 1997). Gleans the foliage of reeds, bushes, limbs overhanging streams (Pearson 1959), rotten logs, and around the edges of water (Dunn and Garrett 1997).


BREEDING: Mature deciduous floodplain, river, and swamp forests; wet lowland forest. Primary habitats are almost always near standing water; swamps that are somewhat open with scattered dead stumps are preferred. Bottomland forests and extensive willow thickets near lakes or ponds are also quite suitable. Requires dense underbrush along streambanks (Bushman and Therres 1988). Nests in cavity (natural, old woodpecker hole, bird box, etc.), in snag or living tree, often or always near or over water, at average height of 1.5-3 m (range 0.9-9.8 m); male selects territory, nest site, places some material before female's spring arrival. May be limited by the number of available nesting cavities. See Blem and Blem (1994) for information on composition and microclimate of nests in Virginia. This is the only eastern warbler that nests in tree cavities or other crannies (the only other cavity-nesting wood warbler (Parulidae) is Lucy's warbler [VERMIVORA LUCIAE]). Petit and Petit (1988) provided the first record of a prothonotary warbler using an open-cup nest built by another species (red-winged blackbird [AGELAIUS PHOENICEUS]).

Hamel et al. (1982) provided details on habitat use and suitability in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The following five vegetation types used by this species in five physiographic provinces (Piedmont, Sandhills, Inner Coastal Plain, Outer Coastal Plain, and Coastline) are listed in order of decreasing suitability: oak-gum-cypress is suitable at the sapling-poletimber successional stage, but optimal at the late successional sawtimber stage; both bay swamp-pocosin and elm-ash-cottonwood are only marginal at the sapling-poletimber stage and suitable at the sawtimber stage; southern mixed mesic hardwoods are only marginal in both the sapling-poletimber and sawtimber stages; and pond-pine pocosin is marginal at the late successional sawtimber stage only. In all cases, shrubs, midstory canopy and dead trees or limbs are used for all activities (foraging, nesting, perching, roosting, and singing), and snags must have a dbh of at least 15 cm.

Kahl et al. (1985) described habitat around song perches in Missouri as typically level terrain, with a small number of woody stems (< 2.5 cm dbh; < 2800 per ha, never > 4200), short ground vegetation (< 0.20 m, never > 0.36), and a high canopy (16-40 m, never < 12). Other important features included few dead stems (2.5-9.9 cm dbh; < 200 per ha, never > 250) and an intermediate subcanopy closure (30-80%, never < 10 or > 90).

NON-BREEDING: In migration, habitat includes dry woodland, scrub, thickets, and mangroves (AOU 1983). Commonly mist-netted in citrus groves in Belize (Mills 1989). Individuals were mist-netted in second-growth marshes, mangrove scrub, and seasonally flooded low forest in the northeastern coastal region of the Yucatan Peninsula (Ornat and Greenberg 1990). Usually occurs near water and most typically in mangroves in Puerto Rico (Raffaele 1989), though Faaborg and Arendt (1992) reported mist-net captures in dry forest in southwestern Puerto Rico. Records from Colombia include mangroves, freshwater swamps, coastal shrubs, and along the Rio Frio River in the edge of the foothills. The birds usually occur near water, but were also historically noted 'in yellow, acacia-like trees on the border of stump land and dry forest, far from water' (Bent 1953).

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
173 Coastal Plain Riverbank Shrubs Shrub dominated riverbanks, commonly dominated by willows and/or alders. Sand and Mud Bar
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
78 Pond-Cypress - Gum Swamps, Savannas and Lakeshores Cypress dominated swamps and lakeshores. Can include bays dominated by pond cypress or shorelines of coastal plain lakes with a narrow band of cypress. Non-riverine Swamp Forest, Natural Lakeshores (in part)
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
267 Riverbank Shrublands Riverside shrubs with temporarily flooded hydrologies. Found in the both the Mountains and Piedmont. Containing dominants such as smooth alder and a Carolina or black willows. Sand and Mud Bar
269 Floodplain Wet Shrublands Saturated shrublands of the Piedmont, includes buttonbush, swamp-loosestrife, decodon and alders. Piedmont/mountain Semipermanent Impoundment
230 Piedmont Mesic Forest American Beech - Red Oak - White Oak Forests. Mesic Mixed Hardwood
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
51 Deciduous Cultivated Plantation Planted deciduous trees. Includes sweetgum and sycamore plantations. No equivalent
View Entire Landcover Legend
Additional Spatial Constraints:
Exclude all area outside of known range.
Exclude all land greater than 50 meters from an open water feature.
Exclude all land greater than 50 meters from wet vegetation.
Exclude brackish and salt water habitats.
Petit, L. J., and D. R. Petit. 1988. Use of Red-Winged Blackbird nest by a Prothonotary Warbler. Wilson Bulletin 100:305-6.

Ornat, A. L., and R. Greenberg. 1990. Sexual segregation by habitat in migratory warblers in Quintana Roo, Mexico. The Auk 107:539-43.

Petit, L.J., D.R. Petit, K.E. Petit, and W.J. Fleming. 1990. Intersexual and temporal variation in foraging ecology of Prothonotary Warblers during the breeding season. Auk 107(1):133-145.

Faaborg, J., and W. J. Arendt. 1992. Long-term declines of winter resident warblers in a Puerto Rican dry forest:which species are in trouble? Pages 57-63 in J. M. Hagan III and D. W. Johnston (editors). Ecology and Conservation of Neotropical Migrant Lan

Carter, M., G. Fenwick, C. Hunter, D. Pashley, D. Petit, J. Price, and J. Trapp. 1996. Watchlist 1996:For the future. Field Notes 50(3):238-240.

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

Mills, E. D. 1989. Nearctic bird migration and wintering ecology in Belize, Central America. Univeristy of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Ph.D. dissertation. Unpublished.

Lefebvre, G., B. Poulin, and R. McNeil. 1994. Spatial and social behavior of Nearctic warblers wintering in Venezuelan mangroves. Can. J. Zool. 72:757-764.

Lefebvre, G., B. Poulin, and R. McNeil. 1992. Abundance, feeding behavior, and body condition of nearctic warblers wintering in Venezuelan mangroves. Wilson Bulletin 104:400-412.

Fussell, J.O. III. 1994. A birderís guide to coastal North Carolina. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

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

Nicholson CP. 1997. Atlas of the breeding birds of Tennessee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Blem, C.R., and L.B. Blem. 1994. Composition and microclimate of Prothonotary Warbler nests. Auk 111(1):197-200.

Pearson, T.G. 1959. Birds of North Carolina. Raleigh, NC: Bynum Printing Company.

Harrison, C. 1978. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Collins, Cleveland, Ohio.

Griscom, L., and A. Sprunt, Jr. 1979. The warblers of America. Doubleday and Co., Garden City, New York. 302 pp.

Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds' nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 279 pp.

Potter, E. F., J. F. Parnell, and R. P. Teulings. 1980. Birds of the Carolinas. Univ. North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 408 pp.

Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

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

Hamel, P. B., H. E. LeGrand Jr., M. R. Lennartz, and S. A. Gauthreaux, Jr. 1982. Bird-habitat relationships on southeastern forest lands. U. S. Dep. Agric., For. Serv. Southeast. For. Exp. Sta. Gen. Tech. Rep. SE-22, Asheville, N. C. 417 p.

American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), Committee on Classification and Nomenclature. 1983. Check-list of North American Birds. Sixth Edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas.

Raffaele, H.A. 1983. A guide to the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Fondo Educativo Interamericano, San Juan, Puerto Rico. 255 pp.

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

Bushman, E.S., and G.D. Therres. 1988. Habitat management guidelines for forest interior breeding birds of coastal Maryland. Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Tech. Publ. 88-1. 50 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.

Mitchell, W.A. 1988. Songbird nest boxes. Section 5.1.8, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wildlife Resources Management Manual. Tech. Rep. EL-88-19. Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Mississippi. 48 pp.

Raffaele, H.A. 1989. A guide to the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Revised edition. Princeton Univ. Press. 220 pp.

Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1989. The birds of South America. Vol. 1. The Oscine passerines. Univ. Texas Press, Austin. 516 pp.

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.

Alsop FJ III. 1991. Birds of the Smokies. Gatlinburg: Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association.

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