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12 Yellow Birds in North Carolina

yellow birds in north carolina
Hooded Warbler in Caldwell, North Carolina: Photo by Martina Nordstrand

Introduction

From the sunlit yellow chests of warblers skimming through pine treetops to the bright golden finches flocking to backyard feeders, North Carolina is home to a remarkable diversity of yellow-feathered birds. The state’s varied ecosystems ranging from Appalachian forests to coastal marshes attract these colorful species. In this article, we’ll explore some stunning yellow birds found in North Carolina, top spots to observe them, and how we can aid in their conservation.

Prothonotary Warbler – Protonotaria citrea

  • Features: The prothonotary warbler is a small and vibrant bird with a bright golden-yellow head and underparts. Its back and wings have an olive hue which complements its golden tones. This warbler has a relatively chunky body compared to other warblers and a large bill, helping to make it recognizable. 
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, these birds usually inhabit swampy woodlands, flooded forests, and areas near slow-moving water bodies where they can find a rich supply of insects and spiders to feed on. They show a strong preference for nesting in natural or artificial cavities close to water. You can find them in the coastal plain and Piedmont regions of North Carolina, where they usually nest in tree holes, nest boxes, or even in the open ends of broken-off tree limbs, especially during the breeding season from April to July.
  • Fun Fact: The prothonotary warbler is named for its golden-yellow plumage, which reminded early observers of the robes worn by prothonotaries, who were clerks in the Roman Catholic Church. 

Prairie Warbler – Setophaga discolor

  • Features: The prairie warbler is a small bird with bright yellow underparts which starkly contrast with its streaked brown back. Its face has a distinctive black semicircular line below the eye, adding to its charismatic appearance. The males, especially, have a rich yellow hue and striking black markings on their flanks, a sight to behold during the breeding season. Their tail movements, which oscillate from side to side, are helpful for identification.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, these warblers predominantly inhabit brushy fields, young forests, and areas that are in the early stages of succession after disturbances like fire or logging. They are known to favor areas with thick undergrowth where they can nest and forage comfortably. During the breeding season, which spans from late April to July, bird watchers can potentially spot them in the coastal plain and Piedmont regions where they are known to breed.
  • Fun Fact: Similar to the majority of warblers, the Prairie Warbler vocalizes two related yet noticeably different types of songs. The quicker “A Song” is serenaded to females as a part of the courtship ritual, whereas the “B Song” is utilized at territorial borders to ward off rival males.

Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas

  • Features: The common yellowthroat is a little warbler that is easily recognizable by its vibrant yellow throat and chest, contrasted sharply with a streaked brownish back. The male sports a striking black “bandit” mask across its eyes, which stands out prominently against its yellow underparts, while the females and juveniles are more subdued with a plain olive-brown appearance without the mask. Despite their small size, they have a loud, distinct song that resembles the phrase “wichity-wichity-wichity”.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, these adaptable birds are commonly found in marshes, wetlands, and brushy fields. They have a preference for dense, low vegetation where they can forage for insects, their primary diet. Birdwatchers can find them fluttering close to the ground, often revealing their presence through their distinctive songs especially during the breeding season which is between late April and July.
  • Fun Fact: Mature common yellowthroats occasionally become the victims of predatory birds like merlins and loggerhead shrikes. In some rare instances, they encounter unforeseen predators: one migrating yellowthroat met its end in the jaws of a Chuck-will’s-widow, while another was discovered in the digestive system of a largemouth bass.

American Goldfinch – Spinus tristis

  • Features: The American goldfinch, also known as the eastern goldfinch or wild canary, is a small, vibrant bird that is particularly noted for its bright yellow plumage in the males during the breeding season, complemented with black wings marked with white stripes. The females and winter males are more subdued with an olive-brown to pale yellow hue. These birds have a distinct flight pattern that consists of a series of rapid wing beats followed by a short glide, creating a wave-like pattern in their flight.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, American goldfinches can be spotted in a variety of habitats including gardens, meadows, open woods, and fields. These birds often frequent bird feeders where they are fond of sunflower seeds and dandelions. During the breeding season, they tend to nest in shrubs or trees at the edge of wooded areas.
  • Fun Fact: This species breeds later in the summer than many North American birds, timed with the peak abundance of seeds in their habitat. They are strict vegetarians, a rarity among birds, relying on a diet solely comprised of seeds.

American Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia

  • Features: The American yellow warbler is a small songbird characterized by its yellow plumage. Males often have striking streaks of reddish-brown on their chests, distinguishing them from the slightly paler females. Their melodic song, which sounds like “sweet-sweet-sweet, I’m so sweet”, is a distinctive feature that is commonly heard during the breeding season.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, American yellow warblers can be commonly found in wetlands, along stream banks, and in thickets. They prefer habitats with abundant shrubs and small trees, where they can nest and forage for insects, their primary food source. During migration, they can be spotted in a variety of habitats, as they travel to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.
  • Fun Fact: Existence harbors many dangers for little birds. American yellow warblers have, on occasion, been discovered ensnared in an orb weaver spider’s web. “Catches yellow warblers, just like thieves.” 

Hooded Warbler – Setophaga citrina

  • Features: The hooded warbler is a small bird with a striking contrast of bright yellow and black in its plumage. The males are particularly vibrant, with a black hood and bib surrounding their yellow face and body, making them appear as if they are wearing a small, dark hood, hence the name. Females are similarly colored but have a more olive-brown hood that is not as distinctly outlined as that of the males.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, these birds favor the understory of mature deciduous forests, particularly in areas with a dense shrub layer which provides ample cover for nesting and foraging. They are ground nesters, often placing their nests in low shrubs or ferns. Apart from their breeding territories, they can also be spotted in mixed forests and wooded suburban areas during migration.
  • Fun Fact: The white markings on a hooded warbler’s tail aid in catching more insects, likely by causing the insects to take flight in surprise. A study carried out in Pennsylvania observed that birds with temporarily obscured tail feathers had lower success rates in catching insects compared to those retaining the white spots on their tails.

Yellow-throated Vireo – Vireo flavifrons

  • Features: The yellow-throated vireo is known for its vibrant yellow throat and chest, contrasting sharply with its olive-green upperparts and white belly. This bird also features a bold, white eye-ring which gives them a distinct and somewhat spectacled appearance. 
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, these songbirds prefer to inhabit open woodlands and forest edges, particularly favoring areas with a mix of deciduous and pine trees. Their nests are usually built high up in the tree canopies, which can sometimes make them a bit challenging to spot. 
  • Fun Fact: The yellow-throated vireo is a meticulous nest builder. They weave a deep cup-shaped nest, using various materials including bark strips, grasses, and spider webs, which not only help to hold the nest together but also provide a degree of camouflage, helping to protect their young from predators. 

Blue-winged Warbler – Vermivora cyanoptera

  • Features: The blue-winged warbler is a small songbird with a vibrant yellow body, accented with a subtle blue-gray hue on its wings. Their bright yellow face has a fine black line that extends through the eyes, giving them a distinctive appearance. 
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, blue-winged warblers are usually found in shrubby areas, young forests, and woodland edges. These environments offer the warblers a rich supply of insects to feed on during the breeding season. They prefer areas with dense understory where they can forage low to the ground and nest in shrubs or on the ground hidden among tall grasses.
  • Fun Fact: These birds are known for their hybridization with the Golden-winged Warbler, producing offspring with a mix of characteristics from both species.

Palm Warbler – Setophaga palmarum

  • Features: The palm warbler is easily recognizable by its vibrant yellow underparts and chestnut cap. It has an olive-brown back with lighter streaks and a distinctive tail-wagging habit which it performs both while perched and in flight, with chestnut streaks on its sides.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, you can find the palm warbler in a variety of habitats, from forests to marshes and fields. They are quite adaptable and can often be found foraging close to the ground in grassy areas. During the migration season, they pass through North Carolina, so keep an eye out for them in the fall and spring.
  • Fun Fact: Palm warblers are known for their unique foraging style. Instead of only sticking to the trees, they prefer to descend to the ground to search for insects and larvae, which make up the majority of their diet. Their distinctive tail-wagging behavior, which sees their entire tail pumping up and down, can often be a clear giveaway of their presence.

Pine Warbler – Setophaga pinus

  • Features: The pine warbler is a relatively subdued species compared to its more vibrant warbler cousins, boasting a palette of gentle yellows and olives. Males typically have a brighter yellow face and chest with olive-green upperparts, while females and young birds are more subdued in color. They have a distinctive white belly and bold white wing bars.
  • Where to Find Them: As their name suggests, pine warblers have a strong preference for pine forests. In North Carolina, you can find them in pine woodlands and mixed forests where pine trees are abundant. They tend to forage high up in the trees, often using their nimble beaks to extract insects from pine needles and bark.
  • Fun Fact: Interestingly, the pine warbler is one of the few warbler species that may visit bird feeders, where they have a particular liking for suet and sunflower seeds. 

Summer Tanager (Female) – Piranga rubra

  • Features: Unlike the bright red males, female summer tanagers display a more subdued appearance, boasting a gentle, yellow-green plumage that allows them to blend seamlessly with their forest habitats. They have a sleek profile with a fairly large bill which they use adeptly to catch insects, their primary diet.
  • Where to Find Them: In North Carolina, summer tanagers can be found in wooded areas, particularly in open woods, riparian forests, and edges of wooded areas. During the breeding season, they prefer deciduous forests where they can nest and raise their young in a rich environment teeming with insect life, which constitutes a significant part of their diet.
  • Fun Fact: Though their diet primarily consists of insects, summer tanagers are one of the few bird species capable of eating bees and wasps. They employ a skilled method of catching these stinging insects mid-air and then rubbing them against a branch to remove the stinger before consuming them.

Scarlet Tanager (Female) – Piranga olivacea

  • Features: Female scarlet tanagers exhibit a markedly different appearance compared to their male counterparts who boast a vibrant red and black coloration. The females, however, grace the forests with their olive-yellow bodies, complemented by wings that have a slightly darker shade, offering a beautiful contrast to the forest’s green canopy. Despite their more subdued coloration, they have the same stout, direct bill which they use adeptly to feed on a diet primarily comprising insects and fruits.
  • Where to Find Them: During the breeding season, scarlet tanagers can typically be found in North Carolina’s deciduous forests, especially in mature, uninterrupted tracts of forest. Their nesting sites are usually well-concealed amidst the foliage, providing a safe haven to raise their offspring. Outside the breeding season, they migrate to the northwestern parts of South America, where they spend the winter in tropical forests.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their vibrant appearance, both male and female scarlet tanagers are masters of concealment. Their choice of nesting sites and their foraging behavior often make them quite elusive, easily blending into the forest canopy. 

Threats and Conservation

Habitat loss, collisions with buildings, climate change impacts, and brood parasitism threaten many yellow bird species. Providing natural food sources, keeping cats indoors, avoiding pesticides, and supporting wetland and early successional habitat conservation can secure their future.

Conclusion

The incredible diversity and sheer beauty of yellow-feathered birds seen across North Carolina is something worth protecting. From tiny prothonotary warblers in cypress swamps to the joyful commotion of American goldfinches at feeders, these species make the state richer. Thoughtful conservation initiatives can help yellow birds continue brightening North Carolina for generations.