For the Birds Radio Program: Common Yellowthroat

Original Air Date: June 22, 1992

Today Laura talks about the little masked bandit of the bird world.

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Probably the jolliest and perkiest little fireball in the Northland is the Common Yellowthroat. This five-inch warbler has one of the loudest songs in the bird world, and a spunky, noisy call note as well. Most people interpret the song as witchity, witchity, witchity, though I often hear looky here, looky here! The yellowthroat’s plumage is as attractive as its song, brown above, bright fiery yellow beneath, with a black mask outlined with white around its face.

Unlike most of the members of the wood warbler family, this little bandit is not a creature of the mature or deep forest. This species nests in cattail marshes and in shrubby edge habitats. An unusually cooperative yellowthroat will occasionally belt out his song from the top of a shrub or a tall cattail, but most yellowthroats stay pretty well hidden. In spite of this species’ abundance and conspicuous song, it’s often a frustrating bird to add to a lifelist.

Female yellowthroats find the male easier to find than we humans do. As a matter of fact, sometimes two or more females will both find the same little songster, and he’s happy to oblige as many females as he can attract. The nest is usually built on the ground, and much of the parents’ time is spent trying to keep cowbirds away from the nest. Yellowthroats are one of the main victims of cowbird parasitism, and they raise a large number of cowbirds instead of their own babies every year. On the rare occasions that a yellowthroat actually recognizes a cowbird egg in its nest, it sometimes buries the egg under a new nest lining, though more often yellowthroats raise any egg or baby in their nest as their own.

Although a yellowthroat mother does all the work of incubating the eggs, the father takes an important part in feeding and raising the babies once they hatch, so when he takes on more than one mate, he ends up feeding eight or even twelve babies, which keeps him busy from sunrise to sunset. Males sing throughout the summer, but during the frantic week and a half after the babies fledge while they are still begging for food, he is too wrapped up chasing them around and searching for food to sing much. During these frantic stages of childrearing, birds can lose almost 50 percent of their body weight. Birds, unlike healthy mammals, store huge deposits of fat which they can burn up during long migration flights or when consumed with feeding babies. Well-fattened yellowthroats read to migrate can weigh more than half an ounce, but exhausted parent yellowthroats frequently weigh barely a quarter of an ounce.

Yellowthroats face many predators in their daily lives, from hawks and cats to bullfrogs and snapping turtles. Raccoons and foxes sometimes smell them out on the nest at nighttime. Their ground nests are occasionally flooded during storms. Sometimes they are poisoned when pesticides are applied to their marshes in mosquito abatement projects. On migration, yellowthroats are frequently killed at radio and TV antenna towers. But for such tiny and vulnerable mites, they can live surprisingly long lives. Of the many birds of all species banded every year, only a tiny fraction are ever found again, yet, in the case of yellowthroats banded at a station near Nashville, Tennessee, at least two have been recaptured five years after their band was put on, three have been re-trapped when six years old, and one was trapped and released when fully seven years old. For all that this bird enriches our lies with its spunky ways, it deserves as long a life as it can get.