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14 Yellow Birds in Michigan

yellow birds in michigan
Yellow-throated Vireo in Washtenaw, Michigan: Photo by Michael Bowen

Introduction

From the sunflower-yellow chests of warblers to the bright golden finches flocking to feeders, yellow birds add beauty and color to Michigan’s varied landscapes. The state’s mix of sprawling forests, Great Lakes shorelines, and wooded wetlands attracts an array of stunning yellow-colored bird species. In this article we’ll explore some eye-catching yellow birds found across Michigan, top spots to observe them, and how we can help their conservation. (You will find that warblers, in their beautiful breeding plumage, make up pretty much the whole list.)

American Goldfinch – Spinus tristis

  • Features: The American goldfinch is known for its vibrant yellow plumage in the summer, complemented by a black forehead and black wings with white markings. In the winter, they molt to a more subdued, olive-brown coloration. The males are generally brighter than the females.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, these birds are quite common and can be spotted in weedy fields, gardens, and open woodlands. They are known to frequent areas with abundant sunflowers, dandelions, and thistles, as they primarily feed on seeds. Bird feeders in residential areas are also popular spots to find them, especially during the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Interestingly, American goldfinches breed later than many North American birds. They wait to nest until June or July when milkweed, thistle, and other plants have produced their seeds. The Goldfinches use these plants’ down to line their nests and their seeds form a major part of their diet. 

American Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia

  • Features: American yellow warblers are small, bright-yellow birds. The males often have a series of distinctive reddish-brown streaks on their chests, resembling a cute little necklace. They have rounded heads and a medium-sized bill which assists them in their insectivorous diet. 
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, American yellow warblers are summer residents, typically nesting in shrubs and small trees near water bodies. They are often spotted in wetlands, along riverbanks, and in gardens and orchards, particularly during the breeding season. 
  • Fun Fact: A resilient species, the American yellow warbler has a fascinating adaptive response to parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird, a bird known for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. If a yellow warbler detects a cowbird egg in its nest, it often builds a new nest directly on top of the parasitized one, sometimes resulting in nests with several layers.

Yellow-throated Vireo – Vireo flavifrons

  • Features: Yellow-throated vireos are small, stout songbirds with a vivid yellow throat and chest, which contrasts with their olive-green upperparts. These birds have a noticeable white eye-ring and spectacles, which give them a distinctive appearance. They have thick, hooked bills that help them capture insects, their primary diet.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, these vireos prefer mature deciduous forests and woodlands, where they usually stay high in the canopy, making them a bit challenging to spot. They favor regions with a combination of tall trees and understory shrubbery, offering them ample opportunities to forage and nest.
  • Fun Fact: Despite being relatively solitary during the breeding season, the yellow-throated vireo has a loud, melodious song. Their vocalization is characterized by clear, slow, and deliberate phrases, which sound like they are carefully considering each note before vocalizing it, earning them the nickname “the preacher bird.”

Prothonotary Warbler – Protonotaria citrea

  • Features: The prothonotary warbler is a small, vibrant songbird known for its brilliant golden-yellow head and upper body, contrasted with blue-gray wings. The males are particularly striking during the breeding season as they flaunt brighter plumage to attract mates.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, these birds can be found in swampy woodlands and forests near water bodies, especially during their breeding season. They have a particular affinity for nesting in tree cavities near water bodies, which helps protect their nests from predators. They usually make their homes in areas with an abundance of trees like willows and maples, where they can forage for insects, their primary food source.
  • Fun Fact: The prothonotary warbler has an interesting nesting behavior; they often use old woodpecker holes or natural tree cavities for their nests. In an effort to preserve their species, conservationists have set up nest boxes in suitable habitats to encourage breeding. 

Wilson’s Warbler – Cardellina pusilla

  • Features: Wilson’s warblers are small, energetic birds characterized by their bright yellow bodies and distinguishing black caps, which are more prominent in males. 
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, Wilson’s warblers can primarily be spotted during the migration seasons. They frequent areas with dense undergrowth in woodlands and forest edges, where they forage actively for insects. During the breeding season, they prefer to nest in the thickets near water bodies, making Michigan’s various wetlands and riverside forests ideal spots to observe these lively birds.
  • Fun Fact: Wilson’s warblers were named after the notable American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson. He is considered one of the founding figures of American ornithology and has made significant contributions to the study of birds. His work in the field during the early 19th century helped identify and categorize numerous bird species in North America, including the Wilson’s warbler. 

Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas

  • Features: The common yellowthroat is a small warbler, easily recognizable by its vibrant yellow throat and chest, contrasting sharply with its olive back and wings. The males are distinct with a black “mask” that adorns their face, adding to their striking appearance.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, these birds are widely distributed across various habitats including marshes, wetlands, and bushy fields. During the breeding season, which spans from late spring to early summer, they are especially prevalent in areas with dense, low vegetation near water bodies where they build their nests concealed in thickets.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their vivid plumage and distinctive calls, common yellowthroats are quite elusive, often staying hidden within thick vegetation. Their melodious “witchety-witchety-witchety” song is a characteristic sound in their habitats, and often the first clue to their presence. 

Canada Warbler – Cardellina canadensis

  • Features: The Canada warbler is a small, sprightly bird with a bluish-gray plumage that contrasts vividly with a bright yellow underside. Males are particularly striking with a distinguished necklace of black streaks across their chest.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, the Canada warbler can be found in dense, moist woodlands, particularly in areas with a rich undergrowth of ferns and shrubs. These birds favor breeding grounds near streams, marshes, and other water bodies, where they can find an ample supply of insects, their primary diet. The late spring to early summer months offer the best opportunity to spot them during their breeding season.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name, the Canada warbler migrates a great distance and spends a significant part of the year in South America, particularly in the Andean regions. These birds undertake a remarkable journey, traversing thousands of miles between their breeding and wintering grounds.

Magnolia Warbler – Setophaga magnolia

  • Features: The magnolia warbler is a vibrant little bird with yellow underparts are distinctly marked with black streaks, complemented by a bluish-gray back and a black mask that adorns its face. The tail is notable for its black and white banding.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, these warblers can be commonly found in young, second-growth forests, especially in areas where spruce and other evergreen trees are abundant. During the spring and fall migration, they can be spotted flitting through a variety of wooded habitats, actively foraging for insects in the foliage.
  • Fun Fact: The magnolia warbler has a somewhat misleading name as it was first described in a magnolia tree in Mississippi. However, magnolia trees are not a part of their natural habitat.

Cape May Warbler – Setophaga tigrina

  • Features: Cape May warblers are known for their striking appearance, with males boasting a rich, yellow face contrasted by a bold black eyestripe and a distinctive chestnut cheek patch. Their upper parts are a blend of gray and black, showcasing complex and intricate patterns, while their underparts have bold black streaks against a lighter background. Females, although somewhat more subdued in color, still display a notable amount of yellow, particularly on the face, and share the characteristic streaking on the underparts.
  • Where to Find Them: These warblers breed in the boreal forests of Canada, but in Michigan, you are most likely to encounter them during migration seasons. They can be seen in various wooded areas, including state parks and near bodies of water, where they actively forage in trees and shrubs, primarily looking for caterpillars and other insects.
  • Fun Fact: Cape May warblers have a unique, tubular tongue that allows them to feed on nectar during their winter months in the Caribbean. This feature also makes them occasional visitors to hummingbird feeders, where they take advantage of sugar-water offerings. 

Palm Warbler – Setophaga palmarum

  • Features: Palm Warblers are quite distinctive with their bright yellow undertail coverts and streaked brown upperparts. These little birds possess an expressive tail, which they bob habitually, making them noticeable in the field. The face features a prominent eye-line and a brown cap, adding to their overall charming appearance. During the breeding season, the males adopt a brighter plumage with stronger chestnut accents.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, palm warblers can often be spotted during the migration seasons, both spring and fall. They predominantly inhabit open areas with scattered trees and shrubs, such as fields, edges of wetlands, and even gardens. They prefer the ground level or low vegetation levels for foraging, which includes a diet mainly comprised of insects and spiders.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name, palm warblers actually breed far from palm tree regions. They are mainly found in the boreal forests and bogs of Canada, where they nest on the ground, often at the base of a tree or near a shrub, utilizing the cover to help conceal their nesting site from potential predators. Their “palm” name is more indicative of their wintering grounds in the southern United States and the Caribbean, where palm trees are more commonly found.

Pine Warbler – Setophaga pinus

  • Features: Pine warblers are beautiful birds, boasting a range of olive-green to yellow hues on their upperparts, with their undersides often being a lighter, more yellowish tone. Males usually exhibit brighter plumage compared to females. They have a relatively slender body with a medium-length tail and a somewhat stout bill.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, pine warblers are generally found in pine woodlands, as their name suggests. They have a particular affinity for pine trees, especially mature pine forests where they forage high up in the canopy, gleaning insects from the pine needles. They are also quite adaptable and can be found in mixed forests with a significant proportion of pine trees.
  • Fun Fact: The pine warbler is one of the few warbler species that have been observed eating seeds, primarily during the winter. Their diet is quite varied and, aside from insects, can include fruit and seeds, making them slightly less dependent on insect populations. This diverse diet allows them to winter farther north than most other warbler species. 

Prairie Warbler – Setophaga discolor

  • Features: The prairie warbler is a small and brightly colored bird, with males having a yellow underbody adorned with bold black streaks on its flanks and a distinctive black line that runs through the eyes. The upper parts are an olive-green hue, complemented by warm chestnut streaks on the back. The females and young ones have a more subdued coloration but still share the vibrant yellow that the species is known for.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, prairie warblers can be found in scrubby fields, young forests, and areas of regenerating woodland – often areas that have been affected by forest fires or clear-cutting. These birds are generally more abundant in the southern part of the state, particularly in areas with a dense undergrowth of shrubs where they can find a plethora of insects to feed on.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name, prairie warblers are more commonly found in scrubby forests and young woodlands rather than prairies. 

Scarlet Tanager (Female) – Piranga olivacea

  • Features: The female scarlet tanager offers a contrasting visual to its male counterpart, bearing a predominantly olive-yellow plumage that subtly blends with the green foliage of their habitats. Despite the subdued tones compared to the vibrant red of the males, the females carry an understated beauty with slightly tinged wings and tail that are a darker olive-gray, providing a lovely contrast to their lighter bodies.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, you can spot scarlet tanagers in deciduous forests, particularly in areas with a good mix of mature oak and pine trees. They are often seen foraging high in the canopy but can sometimes be found lower when searching for food, especially during the migration period.
  • Fun Fact: Even though female scarlet tanagers may seem less vibrant compared to the fiery males, their camouflaging colors play a critical role in helping them stay hidden from predators, especially during the nesting season. 

Summer Tanager (Female) – Piranga rubra

  • Features: The female summer tanager exhibits a unique visual distinction from its vibrant red male counterpart, featuring a beautiful lemon-yellow plumage. This shade not only allows them to blend seamlessly with their environment but also presents a gentle and soothing visual contrast during the breeding season. Their yellow feathering can range from pale to a more intense hue, sometimes with an olive tint, adding to their charm and grace.
  • Where to Find Them: In Michigan, summer tanagers are generally spotted in woodland areas, especially in forests with a rich growth of oaks and other hardwood trees. They prefer habitats that offer a dense canopy and a variety of trees, which provide them with ample opportunities to forage for insects, their primary diet.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their demure coloration, female summer tanagers are fierce protectors of their territory. They are known to aggressively defend their nests and have even been observed attacking and driving away much larger birds and potential predators. 

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss, collisions with buildings during migration, climate change impacts, and brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, for instance, are some threats yellow birds, and other birds in general, face. Providing natural food sources, keeping cats indoors, and supporting wetland restoration and protected forests will give yellow birds the habitat they need to thrive.

Conclusion

The diversity and beauty of yellow-plumaged birds seen across Michigan is something worth treasuring. From tiny palm warblers beginning their incredible northward journeys to the bright plumage of prairie warblers, these species make the landscapes of the Great Lakes State more vibrant. By appreciating and conserving birds and their habitats, we can ensure future generations enjoy their beauty as well.