Migratory in some areas and resident in others, the Pine Warbler does have an affinity for its namesake tree. During winter, Pine Warblers can occur in large flocks in the southeastern U.S., and the species occasionally wanders away from the pine forest to turn up at suburban bird feeders. The inclusion of pine seeds in its diet makes it unusual for a wood-warbler.
Both male and female Pine Warblers may perform a broken-wing display in an effort to lure a predator away from their nest. Nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds is considered rare, though there are a number of records. The oldest known Pine Warbler was about seven years old.
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Description of the Pine Warbler
The Pine Warbler has two white wing-bars, a relatively long tail, white undertail coverts, bold eye rings broken in front of and behind the eyes, and a relatively thick, dark bill
Males are greenish-yellow on the head and upperparts, with a yellow breast and olive-green streaks on the flanks. Variable plumage based on age and sex. Length: 5 in. Wingspan: 9 in.
Females are similar in color to males, but duller.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults, but brownish above and lacking distinct flanks streaks below.
Pine Warblers are found, as their name suggests, in pine woods.
Pine Warblers primarily eat insects, but also seeds and berries.
Pine Warblers hang from needle clusters while foraging, and also forage on tree trunks and on the ground.
Pine Warblers breed in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, and winter in the southeastern U.S. The population has increased in recent decades.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Pine Warbler.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
The Pine Warbler is one of the few warblers that regularly comes to bird feeders, where it accepts suet or even seeds.
Male Pine Warblers may sing in any month of the year.
The song is a rapid trill, very similar to that of the Chipping Sparrow.
Fall Bay-breasted Warblers are very similar, especially juvenile females that may lack any reddish markings on the side. Bay-breasted have streaked back.
Fall Blackpoll Warblers are very similar, more streaking on the back.
The nest is a cup of weeds, grass, and bark and is lined with softer materials. It is usually placed on an outer branch of a conifer tree and usually quite high.
Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 10 days, and leave the nest in another 10 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Pine Warbler
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Pine Warbler – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
NORTHERN PINE WARBLER
DENDROICA PINUS PINUS (Wilson)
Both Wilson and Audubon, referring to its habitat and behavior, called this bird the pine-creeping warbler, a most appropriate name; but each gave it a different scientific name. Audubon’s name, vigorsii, which stood for many years as the specific name, has given way to pinus.
Except on its migrations and some of its summer wanderings, this warbler is essentially a bird of the more open pine woods. In eastern Massachusetts we have always associated the pine warbler with the pitch pines (Pinus rigida) , with their undergrowth of scrub oak, that cover many miles of sandy barrens on Cape Cod and adjacent regions; where it is a quite characteristic and very common breeding bird. We seldom see it in the denser forests of white pines (Pinus strobus) that are the characteristic summer home of the black-throated green warbler. Farther north it is sometimes found breeding in them, but as a general rule it shuns them. Farther west it finds a congenial home in the jack-pine barrens. Elsewhere it frequents Norway pines, red pines, short-leaved pines, scrub pines, and other pines of similar growth. N. S. Goss (1891) writes: “This species, as its name indicates, prefers the pine trees, and usually makes its summer home in the coniferous growths. I have, however, on several occasions met with them during the early summer months in the heavily timbered bottom lands, far away from evergreen trees, and during migration and the winter months they seem to be as much at home in the deciduous trees as among the pines, often visiting the orchards and lowland thickets.” Frederick V. Hebard tells me that in the Southern States it shows a decided preference for the longer-leafed pines.
Spring: The pine warbler is one of the few North American wood warblers whose winter ranges include much of their breeding range; hence its migrations are not much in evidence, except in the northern. part of its summer home. West of the Mississippi Valley and in the Great Plains region, where pine woods are scarce or absent, it occurs only as a migrant on its way to the northern pine forests. In the southeastern States it is present at all seasons, and it is an abundant migrant east of the Alleghenies, northward to New England and southern Canada. It begins to migrate from the northern boundary of its winter range during the last week in March or earlier and passes through New England mainly in April. In Massachusetts we regard it as about the earliest of our warblers, usually appearing in advance of the yellow palm or the myrtle warbler; we can always expect it early in April and occasionally before the end of March. As soon as the warm. spring sun brings out the fragrance of the pine needles, and the first pink blossoms of the trailing arbutus are peeking out from under their winter covering, we may breathe the delightful odors of the pine barrens, listen to the simple trills of the pine warblers among the treetops, and look for the first of the hermit thrushes in the scrub oaks.
Nesting: My experience with the nesting of the northern pine warbler is limited to the finding of a few nests in southeastern Massachusetts. These nests have always been in pitch pines in the dry, sandy pine barrens of Plymouth and Barnstable Counties; I have heard the birds singing in isolated groves of these pines elsewhere but have never happened to find a nest there. The nests I have seen have been placed on horizontal branches at heights varying from 10 to 25 feet above ground, for the trees are seldom very tall; a favorite site seems to be on a branch overhanging a road or path. They were usually well concealed in a cluster of pine needles, but were sometimes in plain sight from the road. The nests are well made and compact; and are usually warmly lined with small feathers, as the birds are early nesters; one especially pretty nest was beautifully lined with bluebird feathers.
Forbush (1929) describes the nests as made “of weed-stems, barkstrips, pine needles, pine twigs, caterpillars’ or spiders’ webs or similar material; lined with pine needles, fern-down, hair, bristles, or feathers.” Nuttall (1832) found a nest of this warbler near Mount Auburn in eastern Massachusetts that was about 40 feet from the ground in a Virginia juniper, or red cedar; “it was firmly fixed in the upright twigs of a close branch. The nest was thin, but very neat; the principal material was the wiry old stems of the slender knot-weed (Polygonum tenue), circularly interlaced, and connected externally with rough linty fibres of some species of Aselepias, and blended with caterpillars’ webs.”
In the Carolinas, where t.he northern pine warbler breeds abun ï dantly, the nests are always built in pines at heights varying from 8 to 80 feet above the ground, but more commonly between 30 and 50 feet up. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) has found nests in South Carolina as high as 135 feet in the tallest pines. The nest may be saddled on a horizontal limb, concealed in the needles at the end of the branch, or hidden in a bunch of cones near the top.
Eggs: The pine warbler lays from 3 to 5 eggs in a set, but usually 4. These are ovate or short-ovate and are practically lusterless. The ground color is white, grayish white, or greenish white, and is speckled, spotted, or blotched with a wide variety of browns, such as “bay,” ~ “auburn,” “argus brown,” “Brussels brown,” “Prout’s brown,” “liver brown,” or “chestnut-brown,” with undertones of “light brownish drab,” “brownish drab,” or “vinaceous-drab.” The spottings are usually concentrated at the large end, where a loose wreath may be formed by numerous brown specklings, or a solid band of bold blotches or cloudings may be produced. In some cases the drab markings are the more numerous, with a few scattered spots of the darker ï browns or with a few scrawls of black. Occasionally, on eggs that are spotted with “Brussels brown” or “Prout’s brown,” the undertones may be a “buffy citrine,” instead of the usual drabs. The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.1 by 13.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.0 by 14.0, 19.1 by 14.2, and 16.5 by 12.6 millimeters (Harris).
Young: The period of incubation does not seem to be definitely known. Several observers have noted that the male shares with the female the duties of incubation. Both parents are industrious and devoted in the care and feeding of the young. In a nest watched by Dr. T. S. Roberts (1936), “they brought spiders and insects of various kinds, including large green larvae, caterpillars, and flies, many so small they could scarcely be seen even at close range. The supply was gathered almost entirely from among the foliage and cones of the jack-pines near by, and the birds could often be seen dragging the larvae from between the scales of the latter. The larger insects were killed and mashed by pounding them on a large limb before they were brought to the young. The parents came and went rapidly, often once or twice a minute. They sometimes fed the same bird several times in succession.”
Plumages: Dr. Dwight (1900) calls the natal down sepia-brown, and describes the juvenal plumage as “above, drab, shading to hair brown. Wings and tail deep olive-brown the secondaries and rectrices with greenish gray edgings, the tertiaries and wing coverts edged with drab; two dull white wing bands. Below, olive-gray washed with drab on the throat and sides and indistinctly mottled with deeper gray. Orbital ring white.” A partial postjuvenal molt, involving the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail, begins late in July in the north, and produces for first winter birds an entirely different plumage, in which the sexes are first distinguishable. Of the young male, Dr. Dwight says: “Above bright olive-green veiled with drab-gray edgings, the upper tail coverts grayer. Wing coverts black, edged with greenish olive-gray; two white wing bands. Below, including superciliary stripe and orbital ring bright lemon-yellow, fading to dull white on abdomen and crissum, veiled with whitish edgings, the flanks washed with drab-gray, a few concealed dusky streaks on the sides of the breast. Lores and postocular spot dusky.” The first winter plumage of the female “is much browner than that of the male, being olive-brown above and pale wood brown below with scarcely a tinge of yellow.”
The first nuptial plumage is “acquired by wear which is excessive, birds becoming greener above and greener yellow below by loss of the edgings, the breast streaks being also exposed.” The first nuptial plumage of the female is grayer than in the fall, easily distinguishable from that of the male. Old and young birds are now practically alike, except for the duller juvenal wings and tail.
A complete postnuptial molt in July and August produces the adult winter plumages of the two sexes, much like those of the first winter, but yellower, with more streaking and less veiling, in the male and also yellower in the female, the latter resembling the first winter male. Nuptial plumages are acquired by wear, as in young birds.
Food: A. H. Howell (1932) reports that the examination of seven stomachs of pine warblers, some of which might have been of the Florida subspecies, all taken in Florida, “showed the food to consist largely of insects and spiders, with small quantities of vegetable debris. The insects taken included grasshoppers, grouse locusts, moths and their larvae, beetles, ants and other Hymenoptera, bugs, flies, and scale insects.” It has been known to eat the cotton boll weevil, aphids, and the eggs and larvae of other insects. As it obtains most of its food on the pine tfees, it is evidently very useful in ridding these trees of the various insect pests that injure them, seeking them in the crevices in the bark of trunks and branches and, in the clusters of needles and under the scales of cones.
It is an expert fly-catcher, but in winter, when insects are not so easily obtained, and probably at other times to some extent, it feeds largely on vegetable food, mainly the seeds of the various pines, but also on wild fruits and berries, such as those of dogwood, wild grapes, ivy, bayberry, Virginia creeper, and sumac. It is often seen feeding on the ground probably on grass and weed seeds. Its food habits seem to be wholly beneficial.
Behavior: The pine warbler is normally quite deliberate in its movements, as it creeps in a leisurely manner over the trunks and larger branches of the pines, searching for insect eggs or larvae in the crevices in the bark. It clings to or climbs over the trunks as easily as a brown creeper, and explores the bases of the needle clusters or hangs from them in the manner of a titmouse. It is quite lively at times, as it flies from the top of one tree to another, sometimes for a long distance, or as it darts out into the air after a passing insect. It frequently feeds on the ground, picking up seeds, grubs or insects; Ridgway (1889) says that “when on the ground it progresses hy a graceful gliding walk, much after the manner of the Red-poll Warbler (D. palnwrum) .’~ If disturbed while feeding on the ground, it flies up and clings to the trunk of the nearest tree; but it is usually rather tame and approachable. On its breeding grounds it is almost constantly in song, flying about from tree to tree, and where it is common, the voices of several may be heard in various directions. R. E. Stewart (1943) writes:
In late August and September, following the breeding season, these birds show a drastic change In habits and frequently occur in small flocks around the headquarters buildings. Here they generally may be found associating with Bluebirds (Rialia staZ~8) and Chipping Sparrows (Spizelks passCnna), feeding on the ground as well as in the bushes and trees of the orchards and landscaped areas. While watching these mixed flocks It was noticed that the Pine Warblers were extremely quarrelsome, frequently fighting among themselves, as well as giving chase to Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and, on one occasion, a Vesper Sparrow (Pooecete8 oramsnea 8).
Voice: Aretas A. Saunders contributes the following study: “The song of the pine warbler is a short trill or series of rapid notes. It is not loud but is quite musical and pleasing in quality. The notes are rarely all on one pitch but vary up or down a half tone. The number of notes, in those songs in which the separate notes are distinct, varies from 8 to 27, averaging 13. A few songs are made up of a single trill, that is, the separate notes so rapid that they cannot be counted.
“Of my 17 records of this song, only 2 are all on one pitch, the remainder showing variation. This slight variation in pitch is one of the characters of this song that distinguishes it from chipping sparrows, juncos, or other species that sing a simple trill. The pitch in my records varies from A”‘ to E””, a range of three and a half tones. Single songs rarely vary more than a tone and a half. Songs vary in length from 1 to 23/5 seconds.
“I have noted no difference that is definite between the songs of migrating birds and of those on breeding grounds, I have no definite data on the song period, but in the New Jersey pine barrens birds are still in song in the middle of July.”
In New England, pine warblers sing more or less all summer and up to the middle of September or a little later. Francis H. Allen, who has heard one singing while feeding on the ground, tells me: “The ordinary song is, of course, a simple, sweet, liquid trill, but not infrequently I hear a song consisting of two trills, the second pitched lower than the first. On April 18, 1932, at Pembroke, Mass., I heard from a pine warbler a number of times a slow wip wip wip wip wip, etc., followed sometimes by the rapid trill of the ordinary song. And on April 17, 1935, at Westwood, Mass., I found several singing in white pine woods with a good deal of variety in rapidity and pitch, and sometimes a downward inflection at the end of the trill. I have noticed on two or three occasions that when the bird sings the bill is opened and closed with each note of the trill and the bird quivers all over, fluttering the wings very noticeably.
“I have heard from a young bird in August a confused, lisping song, warblerlike but not at all like the regular song of the species. From young birds in September I have heard a chatter, while they were being fed, that ended in a heavy note; I recorded it as tip tip tip tip sip. The call-note resembles that of the black-poll warbler but, as I have heard it, seems somewhat more prolonged and fainter. Another is a sharp, high chip or tip, lighter and clean-cut.”
Albert R. Brand (1938) records the number of vibrations per second in the song of the northern pine warbler as varying from 5,125 to 3,300, with an approximate mean of 4,150. The latter is the lowest figure for any of the Dendroicae.
Enemies: The pine warbler seems to be a rare victim of the cowbird; I have been able to find only seven records in the literature.
Harold S. Peters (1936) lists only one tick, Haermaphysalia leporiapalustri~ Packard, as an external parasite on this warbler.
Field marks: The adult male has a bright greenish-yellow breast, greenish-olive upper parts, two whitish wing bands, and white patches at the ends of the two outer tail feathers. The female is duller throughout, with less yellow on the breast. Both sexes are duller and more brownish in the fall. Young birds are very plainly colored, with no bright colors, and are decidedly brown above, but the dull whitish wing bands and white markings in the tail are good field marks.
Winter: As the pine warbler spends the winter in approximately the southern third of its breeding range, it becomes exceedingly abundant in tbe southern States at that season. A few hardy individuals occasionally remain in winter as far north as Massachusetts, but the great majority join the resident birds from Virginia and southern Illinois southward to Florida and the Gulf States. Dr. Chapman (1907) writes: “The pine barrens of Florida have no more characteristic bird than this abundant Warbler. Even on frosty mornings one may hear its trilled monotone rising distinctly above the accompaniment of Palm Warbler chip8, Bluebird whistles, and Nuthatch chatter. By February 1 they are singing in numbers and to one who is much in the pines, their voice becomes as much an audible expression of the mood of the trees as the sighing of the wind through their branches.”
N. S. Goss (1891) says that in Kansas during the winter months, “they seem to be as much at home in the deciduous trees as among the pines, often visiting the orchards and lowland thickets. I found a few wintering in the cypress swamps in eastern Arkansas, also in Florida, where they are quite common, and usually in small flocks.”
Referring to the sandhills of North Carolina, Milton P. Skinner (1928) writes: “During the winter these warbiers are found in little groups of from two to six individuals. Sometimes a single bird is seen, but when that is the case it is almost always with other birds such as Myrtle Warblers, Juncos, Hermit Thrushes, Bluebirds or Whitethroated Sparrows. * * * On January 15, 1927, several were seen foraging amid the fallen leaves and pine straw at the edge of a scrub oak forest. Here they tore old oak leaves apart and devoured the eggs and young of gall insects.”
Range: Southern Canada, the eastern United States and the Bahamas.
Breeding range: The pine warbler breeds north to central Alberta (Athabaska and Flat Lake; possibly Lac la Biche) ; central Saskatchewan (Wingard); southern Manitoba (Aweme and Winnipeg); southern Ontario (Rainy River, upper Michipicoten River, Algonquin Park, and Ottawa) ; and southern Quebec (Inlet P. 0., Montreal, and Chambley); it has also occurred but without evidence of breeding in southeastern Quebec (Esquimaux Bay) ; Prince Edward Island; and New Brunswick (Grand Manan and Fredericton). East to southeastern Quebec (Chambley) ; central southern Maine (Bangor and Buckaport) ; and the Atlantic coast south to southern Florida (Miami and Homestead); also the Bahamas. South to southern Florida (Homestead and Long Pine Key) ; the Gulf coast of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi to southern Louisiana (Madisonville and Bayou Bara); and southeastern Texas (Sour Lake and Conroe). West to eastern Texas (Conroe, Waskam, and Texarkana) ; southeastern Oklahoma (Broken Bow and Wilburton); eastern Kansas (Hesston and Bendena) ; northeastern Illinois (Riverside) ; southwestern Wisconsin (North Freedom) ; north and central Minnesota (Mule Lacs, Gull Lake, and Itaska Park) ; southern Saskatchewan (Indian Head) ; and central Alberta (Castor and Athabaska).
Winter range: The pine warbler winters north to northwestern and central Arkansas (Rogers and Hot Springs) ; central Mississippi (Deemer); north-central Alabama (Birmingham); north-central Georgia (Atlanta); northern South Carolina (Chester); central North Carolina (Charlotte and Raleigh); and southeastern Virginia (Lawrenceville). It has occurred casually in winter north to Memphis and Knoxville, Tenn.; Summersville, W. Va.; Geneva, N. Y.; Morristown, N. J.; and Framingham, Mass. East to southeastern Virginia (Lawrenceville); eastern North Carolina (Roanoke Island and Lake Mattamuskeet) ; the coast of South Carolina (Charleston); Georgia (Savannah) ; and Florida (St. Augustine, Miami, and Homestead). South to southern Florida (Homestead) ; the Gulf coast of Florida (St. Marks and Whitfield) ; Mississippi (Biloxi) ; Louisiana (New Orleans and Chenier au Tigre); and Texas (Houston and Cameron County) ; and there is a single record for northeastern Mexico (Matamoras).
The range as outlined includes the entire species, of which two races are recognized on the continent of North America. The northern pine warbler (D. p. pinus) occupies all of the range except the southern part of the peninsula of Florida where, from Volusia, Lake, and Citrus Counties southward, it is replaced by the resident Florida pine warbler (D. p. florida). Other races occur in the Bahamas.
Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Alabama: Shelby, March 18. Virginia: Lynchburg, February 25. District of Columbia: Washington, March 5. Pennsylvania: Swarthmore, March 15. New York: Orient, March 23. Massachusetts: Boston, March 28. New Hampshire: Concord, April 3. Maine: Lewiston, March 30. Quebec: Montreal, May 6. Tennessee: Athens, February 22. Kentucky: Beres, March 29. Missouri: St. Louis, April 11. Illinois: Riverside, April 7. Indiana: Indianapolis, April 17. Ohio: Columbus, March 29. Michigan: Grand Rapids, April 1G. Ontario: Toronto, April 13. lowa: Sabula, April 17. Wisconsin: Reedsburg, April 19. Minnesota: St. Paul, April 17. Manitoba: Aweme, April 17.
Late dates of fall departure are: Manitoba: Awerne, September 25. North Dakota: Fargo, September 18 (bird banded). Minnesota: Hotchinson, October 15. Wisconsin: Trout Lake, October 11. lowa: Lamont, October 1. Missouri: St. Louis, October 24. Ontario-Ottawa, October 10. Michigan: Ann Arbor, October 25. Ohio-Toledo, October 22. Indiana: Washington, October 27. IIlinois: Olney, October 23. Kentucky: Versailles, October 20. Quebee: Montreal, October 18. Maine: Portland, October 17. Vermont: Wells River, October 6. Massachusetts: Martha’s Vineyard, November 23. New York: New York, October 29. Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, November 6. Delaware: Dover, November 28. District of Columbia: Washington, October 31. Virginia: Charlottesville, October 22.
Banding: At Thomasville, Ga., among several wintering pine warblers trapped in January and February 1924, was one that had been banded there the previous year. Several pine warblers banded in Massachusetts have yielded data on longevity: A pine warbler banded at North Eastham on Cape Cod on August 4, 1931, was retrapped at the same station, April 16, 1934; another banded September 1, 1934, was retrapped at the same station on May 27, 1939; another banded at this station on September 7, 1934, was killed by an auto on June 20, 1939, nearby. A pine warbler banded at East Wareham, Mass., on April 16, 1926, was retrapped at the same station on March 29, 1929, and April 9, 1932, being at least six years and nine months old when last seen.
Casual records: A juvenile was shot at Godthaab, Greenland, on October 1, 1899. There are several records of the occurrence of the pine warbler in Bermuda, usually in small flocks. They were found in the islands September 27, 1849; October 5, 1850; October 15, 1850; March 16, 1875; and October 4, 1930. On October 16, 1930, one came aboard a ship about 100 miles off Cape Hatteras.
Egg dates: Florida: 23 records, April 8 to May 26; 13 records, April 11 to 27.
Massachusetts: 18 records, May 22 to June 28; 10 records, May 23 to 31.
New Jersey: 23 records, May 9 to June 21; 13 records, May 13 to 30, indicating the height of the season.
North Carolina: 9 records, April 4 to May 1; 5 records, April 14 to 23.
FLORIDA PINE WARBLER
DENDROICA PINUS FLORIDA (Maynard)
C. J. Maynard (1906) described this subspecies as the resident form of southern Florida, from Volusia, Lake, and Citrus Counties to Homestead and Long Pine Key in the southern Everglades. It has a longer bill and the upper parts are slightly more yellowish. It is evenly distributed in the extensive pine forests throughout its range. Arthur H. Howell (1932) says that: nesting begins late In March or early In April. Nicholson observed two nests In process of construction at Orlando, March 12, 1911, one 30 feet up in a cypress tree, the other 40 feet up in a pine. In the same locality, on April 18, he found a nest containing 4 eggs, 30 feet up in a pine, and 10 feet from the trunk at the end of a branch. The nests are usually near the tips of slender limbs and well concealed in clumps of leaves or bunches of cones. They are deeply cupped, constructed of grass and plant down, with a few pine needles, and neatly lined with thistle down. * * * Examination in the Biological Survey of the stomachs of 7 specimens taken in Florida showed the food to consist largely of Insects and spiders, with small c~uantltles of vegetable debris The Insects taken Included grasshoppers, grouse locusts, moths and their larvae, beetles, ants and other Hymenoptera, bugs, flies, and scale Insects.
The eggs of the Florida pine warbler are similar to those of the northern bird. The measurements of 12 eggs average 18.0 to 13.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.0 by 13.1, 18.2 by 14.2, and 16.9 by 13.1 millimeters (Harris).