Prothonotary Warbler

Protonotaria citrea (Boddaert, 1783)

Prothonotary Warbler
Nell Baldaccino

Aves (Birds)
Parulidae (Wood-Warblers)
State Protection
Protected Bird
Defined as a Protected Bird by New York State law, and the species may not be hunted or taken at any time in New York. Includes birds also defined as a game species, but for which no open seasons are set.
Federal Protection
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act implements various treaties and conventions between the U. S. and Canada, Japan, Mexico and the former Soviet Union for the protection of migratory birds. Under this Act, taking, killing, or possessing migratory birds, including nests or eggs, is unlawful unless specifically permitted by other regulations.
State Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled in New York - Very vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 20 populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or steep declines. (A migratory animal which occurs in New York only during the breeding season.)
Global Conservation Status Rank
Secure globally - Common in the world; widespread and abundant (but may be rare in some parts of its range).


Did you know?

Prothonotary Warblers are one of two cavity nesting warblers. The other is Lucy's warbler.

State Ranking Justification

In New York State, Prothonotary Warblers are rare, locally breeding birds with few established breeding areas. The Prothonotary Warbler is a southern species which has been gradually moving northward; New York state being on the edge of its breeding range. According to the first Breeding Bird Atlas in the state, Prothonotary Warblers were reported in 22 blocks where seven blocks were reported with confirmed breeding and seven blocks were reported with probable breeding (Andrle and Carroll 1988). During the second Breeding Bird Atlas, there were a total of 11 reported blocks where four blocks were confirmed breeding and two blocks were probable breeding (McGowan and Corwin 2008).

Short-term Trends

Between 1980 and 1985, the first Breeding Bird Atlas in the state reported a total of 22 breeding blocks for Prothonotary Warbler. Fourteen of those blocks were recorded as probable or confirmed breeding (Andrle and Carroll 1988). During the second Breeding Bird Atlas, Prothonotary Warblers were recorded in a total of 11 blocks with probable or confirmed breeding in six blocks (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2005). There was a 43% decline in reported probable and confirmed breeding between the two atlases. It is not known if this finding is statistically significant, but it appears that there are fewer breeding Prothonotary Warblers in the state now than there were in the early 1980s. Prothonotary Warblers were not found in all established breeding areas, such as Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, during the second Breeding Bird Atlas (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Breeding Bird Survey data are too sparse in New York to determine trends (Sauer et al. 2007).

Long-term Trends

The first documented time Prothonotary Warblers attempted breeding in New York was in 1910 at a marsh near Cayuga Lake in Tompkins County (Levine 1998). During the 1920s and 1930s, the numbers of spring visitor records increased. In 1931, confirmed breeding was recorded at Oak Orchard Swamp with the discovery of five nests and at least eight singing males. Over the next few decades, breeding was recorded at various other locations in Central and Western New York. Then, during the 1970s, breeding was recorded on Long Island (Levine 1998). Since this species remains at the edge of its breeding range in New York, it is likely that it will be found breeding in one location one year and not found there the next (Andrle and Carroll 1988, McGowan and Corwin 2008). While consistent breeding in an area is relatively rare in New York, the range has expanded in the state over time and seems to be relatively stable over a long period of time. Breeding Bird Survey data are too sparse to determine trends for New York (Sauer et al. 2007).

Conservation and Management


The primary threat in most areas is loss of suitable habitat (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Loss of old growth forest associated with riparian habitats is detrimental because older trees are more likely to develop nesting cavities. Widespread drainage of required wetland habitat is also a significant threat.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Prothonotary Warblers prefer more mature forests with tree cavities and snags. Trees that are most suitable have a diameter at breast height of 15 centimeters (6 inches). A permanently uncut buffer zone on both sides of streams to maintain or provide thick and shady vegetation along stream banks would be beneficial to this species. Buffer zones are recommended to be at least 90 meters (295 feet) wide (Bushman and Therres 1988 cited in NatureServe 2006). Since Prothonotary Warblers are also know to use nest boxes (NatureServe 2006), it may be beneficial to provide them in areas where natural tree cavities are in short supply.

Research Needs

Additional studies are needed to determine what techniques are best for monitoring Prothonotary Warbler populations. Consistent monitoring of breeding populations could provide important information on population recruitment and dynamics (NatureServe 2006).



In New York, the Prothonotary Warbler breeding habitat is wooded areas near water. Preferred habitat includes flooded bottomland hardwood forests, cypress swamps, and along large lakes and rivers (McGowan and Corwin 2008). Nests are found in cavities of snags or living trees that are typically two to eight feet above the water (NatureServe 2006). They will also raise young in nest boxes (NatureServe 2006).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Coastal plain Atlantic white cedar swamp* (guide)
    A swamp that occurs on organic soils along streams and in poorly drained depressions of the coastal plain. Atlantic white cedar makes up over 50% of the canopy cover. In mixed stands in New York, red maple is the codominant tree.
  • Floodplain forest* (guide)
    A hardwood forest that occurs on mineral soils on low terraces of river floodplains and river deltas. These sites are characterized by their flood regime; low areas are annually flooded in spring, and high areas are flooded irregularly.
  • Hemlock-hardwood swamp* (guide)
    A swamp that occurs on mineral soils and deep muck in depressions which receive groundwater discharge. These swamps usually have a fairly closed canopy (70 to 90% cover), sparse shrub layer, and low species diversity. The tree canopy is typically dominated by eastern hemlock and co-dominated by yellow birch and red maple.
  • Inland Atlantic white cedar swamp* (guide)
    A swamp that occurs on organic soils (usually peat) in poorly drained depressions and along pond edges in southeastern New York and northern New Jersey. The characteristic tree is Atlantic white cedar. In mixed stands the codominants are typically red maple, black gum, and eastern hemlock.
  • Red maple-blackgum swamp (guide)
    A maritime, coastal, or inland hardwood swamp that occurs in poorly drained depressions, sometimes in a narrow band between a stream and upland. Red maple and blackgum are often codominant or blackgum may be the dominant tree. Pitch pine may occur on drier hummock islands in pine barrens settings.
  • Red maple-hardwood swamp* (guide)
    A hardwood swamp that occurs in poorly drained depressions, usually on inorganic soils. Red maple is usually the most abundant canopy tree, but it can also be codominant with white, green, or black ash; white or slippery elm; yellow birch; and swamp white oak.
  • Red maple-sweetgum swamp* (guide)
    A hardwood swamp that occurs on somewhat poorly drained seasonally wet flats, usually on somewhat acidic soils. Red maple-sweetgum swamps often occur as a mosaic with upland forest communities. Sweetgum is often the dominant tree or may be codominant with red maple. Other codominant trees include pin oak and blackgum.
  • Rich mesophytic forest* (guide)
    A hardwood or mixed forest that resembles the mixed mesophytic forests of the Allegheny Plateau south of New York but is less diverse. It occurs on rich, fine-textured, well-drained soils that are favorable for the dominance of a wide variety of tree species. A canopy with a relatively large number of codominant trees characterizes this forest. Canopy codominants include five or more of the following species: red oak, red maple, white ash, American beech, sugar maple, black cherry, cucumber tree, and black birch.
  • Silver maple-ash swamp (guide)
    A hardwood basin swamp that typically occurs in poorly-drained depressions or along the borders of large lakes, and less frequently in poorly drained soils along rivers. These sites are characterized by uniformly wet conditions with minimal seasonal fluctuations in water levels. The dominant trees are usually silver maple and green ash.

* probable association but not confirmed.


New York State Distribution

New York is at the northern edge of the breeding range for Prothonotary Warblers. Localized breeding generally occurs in central and western New York and on Long Island.

Global Distribution

The breeding range for Prothonotary Warblers extends from eastern Minnesota and Wisconsin across the southern Great Lakes region to northern New Jersey, south to Texas, the Gulf Coast, and central Florida, west to Oklahoma and Kansas (AOU 1983). Breeding Bird Survey data (1966-1991) indicate relatively high abundances in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Mississippi. The breeding range has expanded northward, especially in the Mississippi Valley and vicinity. Nesting recently (1992) was recorded in Rhode Island (Wadman et al., unpubl., cited in NatureServe 2006). During the non-breeding season, Prothonotary Warblers are found from the Yucatan peninsula (rarely) south on the Caribbean slope of Central America to Nicaragua, both slopes of Costa Rica and Panama, from Colombia east to northern Venezuela, and from the Netherlands Antilles east to Trinidad and Tobago (AOU 1983). They are most common in Panama and western Colombia and northern Venezuela. They are rarely found in Suriname and northern Ecuador. They are known to migrate through and apparently occasionally overwinter in the West Indies. On occasion, Prothonotary Warblers are found in Puerto Rico and they are apparently rare in the Virgin Islands (Raffaele 1983, 1989, cited in NatureServe 2006). There are also records on the Galapagos Islands nearly 1000 km west of mainland South America (Petit and Tarvin 1990, cited in NatureServe 2006).

Best Places to See

  • Carlls River at Belmont Lake State Park (Suffolk County)
  • Oak Orchard Swamp (Niagara, Orleans Counties)

Identification Comments

Identifying Characteristics

When compared to other members of the Parulidae family, the Prothonotary Warbler is a reletively large (14 centimeters or 5.5 inches), plump, short-tailed, long-billed warbler. They have large, dark, prominent eyes. Males have a glolden yellow head and underparts that fade to white undertail coverts. Wings are blue-gray and lack wing bars. The tail is blue-gray with large white patches. Females are similar, but are duller and have a less golden head. Prothonotary Warblers nest in cavities. Nests are cup-shaped and hollow consisting of mosses, rootlets, twigs, and leaves. Nests are smoothly lined with fine grasses, leaf stems, and feathers. The inside diameter is 5.1 centimeters (2.0 inches) and the depth is 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches). The creamy-colored, oval to short oval eggs are boldly and liberally spotted and blotched with brown. The shell is smooth and somewhat glossy (NatureServe 2006). The average egg size is 18.47 x 14.55 millimeters (0.73 x 0.57 inches). The song is described as a series of loud, ringing "zweet" notes on one pitch.

Best Time to See

Prothonotary Warblers are found in New York from early April to late September. The best time to observe these birds is mid to late June when the males are in full breeding plumage and are most likely to be holding territories and raising young.

  • Active
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find Prothonotary Warbler active and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)
    Yellow Warblers lack blue-gray wings and white undertail.
  • Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)
    Blue-winged Warblers have a black eye line while Prothonotary Warblers lack a black eye line.

Prothonotary Warbler Images


Prothonotary Warbler
Protonotaria citrea (Boddaert, 1783)

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Aves (Birds)
        • Order Passeriformes (Perching Birds)
          • Family Parulidae (Wood-Warblers)

Additional Resources


American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). 1983. Check-list of North American Birds, 6th edition. Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas. 877 pp.

Andrle, Robert F. and Janet R. Carroll, editors. 1988. The atlas of breeding birds in New York State. Cornell University Press. 551 pp.

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

Blem, C. R., and L. B. Blem. 1991. Cation concentrations and acidity in breeding ponds of the spotted salamander, AMBYSTOMA MACULATUM (Shaw) (Amphibia: Ambystomatidae), in Virginia. Brimleyana 17:67-76.

Blem, C. R., and L. B. Blem. 1991. Nest-box selection by Prothonotary Warblers. Journal of Field Ornithology 62:299-307.

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

Brush, T. 1991. Nesting ecology of Prothonotary Warblers in eastern Iowa: 1988-1991. Report submitted to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Unpublished.

Bull, John. 1974. Birds of New York State. Doubleday, Garden City, New York. 655 pp.

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

Carter, M., C. Hunter, D. Pashley, and D. Petit. 1998. The Watch List. Bird Conservation, Summer 1998:10.

Fleming, W. J. and D. R. Petit. 1986. Modified milk carton nest box for studies of Prothonotary Warblers. Journal of Field Ornithology 57:313-5.

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

Harrison, C. 1978. A Field Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds. Collins, Cleveland, Ohio.

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

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

Leberman, R. C. 1992. Prothonotary Warbler. Pages 334-5 in D. W. Brauning (editor). Atlas of breeding birds in Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Levine, E. 1998. Bull's birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY.

McGowan, K.J. and K. Corwin, eds. 2008. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State: 2000-2005. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. 688 pp.

National Geographic Society (NGS). 1987. Field guide to the birds of North America. Second edition. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

NatureServe. 2006. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 6.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available (Accessed: November 29, 2006 ).

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

New York State Breeding Bird Atlas. 1985. Final breeding bird distribution maps, 1980-1985. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Wildlife Resources Center. Delmar, NY.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2005. New York State Breeding Bird Atlas Database. Division of Fish and Wildlife, Albany, NY.

Petit, L. J. 1989. Breeding biology of Prothonotary Warblers in riverine habitat in Tennessee. The Wilson Bulletin 101:51-61.

Petit, L. J. 1991. Adaptive tolerance of cowbird parasitism by Prothonotary Warblers: a consequence of nest-site limitation? Animal Behavior 41:425-32.

Petit, L. J., W. J. Fleming, K. E. Petit, and D. R. Petit. 1987. Nest-box use by Prothonotary Warblers (PROTONOTARIA CITREA) in riverine habitat. The Wilson Bulletin 99:485-8.

Petit, L. J., et al. 1990. Intersexual and temporal variation in foraging ecology of prothonotary warblers during the breeding season. Auk 107:133-145. See also Auk 107:146-152.

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

Walkinshaw, L. H. 1941. The Prothonotary Warbler, a comparison of nesting conditions in Tennessee and Michigan. The Wilson Bulletin 65:152-68.

Walkinshaw, L. H. 1953. Life-history of the Prothonotary Warbler. The Wilson Bulletin 65:152-168.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: December 31, 2007

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Protonotaria citrea. Available from: Accessed June 23, 2024.