The Common Yellowthroat

Debbie Becker

Common Yellowthroat

I would like to take this occasion to focus on a charming visitor to Bryant Park; at certain times of year this is the most abundant bird species in the park aside from the ubiquitous House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons. The Common Yellowthroat is a member of the Parulidae family, or American Wood-Warblers (often referred to simply as warblers, but there’s a separate, unrelated Old World family also called warblers). Most Wood-Warblers are tree-dwellers, but the Common Yellowthroat is an exception: it is usually found on or near the ground, where it skulks about in brush and other dense vegetation.

It is a very aptly-named species, as it is indeed quite common (brush being a common habitat), and both sexes and all ages do in fact have a bright yellow throat (although particularly nondescript young females can lack any sign of yellow). The adult male additionally has a Zorro-like black mask, earning him the nickname “brush bandit”. Females and younger males lack the mask. They, like the males, are small, dumpy warblers, olive-green all over except for the eponymous yellow throat. They lack the wing-bars or spots or stripes that many other warblers have. They have a tendency to cock their short-ish tails upwards in a similar fashion to wrens.

While hopping about in leaf-litter and undergrowth, Yellowthroats search for insects and spiders to eat. They are hardier than most warblers; as I’ve explored in a previous blog post , bird migration is more about food availability than avoiding the cold (although the two are interlinked). Warblers searching for insects in foliage in deciduous trees are forced to migrate earlier, as the caterpillars and other insects die off and the leaves fall from the trees. Warblers feeding in conifers (such as the Pine Warbler) tend to be later migrants, as the insects can shelter in the coniferous evergreens later in the season. And some ground-dwelling warblers such as Ovenbirds and Common Yellowthroats are hardier still, as they can find insects and other invertebrates that are hidden in leaf-litter that lingers late into the fall season. While most warbler species have now been gone for weeks, headed south to milder climes with more abundant food, Common Yellowthroats were still being reported in Bryant Park as recently as this past Wednesday.

Even they will eventually be forced to retreat southward as temperatures consistently drop below freezing and the last invertebrates go underground or die off for the winter. But given their hardy nature, they don’t migrate too far: Yellowthroats winter in the south-eastern US from North Carolina to Florida, as well as throughout the Caribbean and into Mexico (there are resident nonmigratory populations in Mexico as well). There our Common Yellowthroats join other species, their subtropical cousins: there are about a dozen species of Yellowthroat found in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Most are endemic to various parts of Mexico.

The Common Yellowthroats will return northward in the spring, usually arriving in our neck of the woods in mid-April. The males arrive first, staking a claim on their territories, and singing their distinctive loud “Wichity Wichity Wichity!” song from within shrubbery, often near water. They breed throughout the United States and Canada, everywhere except desert or arctic regions that are a bit too hot or cold for their tastes. They don’t, however, nest in Bryant Park as far as I know: there’s not quite enough habitat to sustain them, or too much disturbance perhaps. They do seem quite fond of the park as a migration stop-over though: the all-time high count for the park was 30 individuals seen in September 2013 (this isn’t a species generally found in flocks - that number might not sound impressive for sparrows or other social species, but is impressive for any warbler, particularly the reclusive Yellowthroat).

Given their skulking nature, they are easily overlooked. Next time you’re in Bryant Park, keep an eye out among the Winter Village kiosks and in the undergrowth for the small olive-colored bird with the bright yellow throat, which may occasionally venture forth to perch on a bench or the rung of one of the park’s iconic chairs. And wish it well on its journey south!