A short-distance migrant, the Red-faced Warbler regularly occurs in the U.S. only in Arizona and New Mexico, at the northern extent of its breeding range. Male Red-faced Warblers establish breeding territories they defend from other males, although females will defend the territory from other females.
There is little information regarding the typical lifespan of Red-faced Warblers. Evidence does exist that they regularly return to the same breeding territories in subsequent years. Nests are only rarely parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.
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Description of the Red-faced Warbler
The Red-faced Warbler has a mostly red head with a black crown and auriculars, gray upperparts with a white rump, and whitish underparts. Length: 5 in. Wingspan: 8 in.
The sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble adults but have brownish-gray heads.
Red-faced Warblers inhabit mountainous pine and oak forests.
Red-faced Warblers eat insects.
Red-faced Warblers forage in trees, sometimes flying out from a perch to catch insects in midair.
Red-faced Warblers breed in parts of the southwestern U.S. and they winter in Mexico and Central America. The population is not well measured.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Red-faced Warbler.
Like several other species in its range and habitat, the Red-faced Warbler is poorly studied, and much remains to be learned about its basic biology and ecology.
Red-faced Warblers molt just once each year.
Calls include a sharp “chup”, while the song is a series of high, descending notes.
- The Red-faced Warbler is the only warbler with red in the face.
The Red-faced Warbler’s nest is a cup of plant materials placed on the ground on a bed of dead leaves and pine needles.
Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: Pinkish-white with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 13-15 days, and leave the nest in about 11-13 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Red-faced 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 Red-faced Warbler – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CARDELLINA RUBRIFRONS (Giraud)
This well-marked and striking species is a Mexican bird that has extended its range into southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Since the bird is common in the mountains of Mexico, it is not surprising that it should follow the trends of these ranges into the United States, as some other species have done. Early reports of the occurrence of the red-faced warbler in Texas having been discredited as probably erroneous, it was definitely added to our fauna by Henry W. Henshaw (1875), who “met with the species at two points, near Camp Apache, and again on Mount Graham, a point some two hundred miles to the south. At the former place, several specimens were captured, including the young in nesting plumage, thus indicating that they breed in the vicinity.”
The northern red-faced warbler is essentially a bird of the mountain canyons, breeding quite commonly from 7,000 feet upward in probably all of the mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Dr. Edgar A. Mearns (1890) found it to be “a summer resident from near the lower border of the pine belt to the summit of the Mogollon Mountains. It was not seen in the San Francisco Mountains, but was found breeding about thirty miles south of them,” in Arizona. We found it common in Ramsay Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains, mainly between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, where the sloping sides of the canyon were clothed with spruces, firs, and, higher up, with pines. Here the bright red faces of the otherwise sombre-colored males flashed like glowing embers in the dark shadows of the conifers and quickly caught the eye.
Dr. George M. Sutton (1943) found it common in the Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, where “every open aspen copse visited by the writer sheltered a pair of these handsome birds.” Mrs. Bailey (1928) mentions a number of localities in New Mexico where it has been observed or found breeding.
Spring: The red-faced warbler may eventually be found breeding farther north than is now known, as it seems to be more abundant in southern Arizona on the spring migration than during the breeding season, suggesting that some may be passing through that region. 0. W. Howard (1899) says: “These birds are quite common in the mountains of Southern Arizona, especially during the spring migration. I have seen as many as four or five feeding in one tree. They become scarcer as the season advances and at the time of breeding comparatively few of them remain.” And Harry S. Swarth (1904) says that, in the Huachucas, it is “found during the breeding season from 7000 feet upwards, and in the migrations as abundant in the higher pine regions as anywhere. The first arrival was noted April 20th, and up to the middle of May they were seen in considerable numbers along the canyons, often in company with other migrating warblers. During the breeding season their numbers seem to be greatly decreased, but this is probably more apparent than real, as at this time they are very quiet and inconspicuous; and as soon as the young begin to appear, about the middle of August, they are as numerous as ever.”
Nesting: Although not the first to report it, Dr. Mearns (1890) was the first naturalist to find the nest of the red-faced warbler. He describes the event as follows:
On the 19th of June, 1886, I was encamped on a southern slope of the Mogollon Mountains, about five miles within the pine belt, In what has been designated the Great San Francisco Forest. Following a small stream into a little caflon between whose rocky walls stood groups of towering spruces and of aspens, the ground beneath thickly sprinkled with violets, strawberries, honeysuckles, and columbines, 1 entered a side ravine and had stooped to gather some flowering honeysuckles when a little bird was flushed from its nest upon the side of the bank, close to the trunk of a large spruce. Alighting In a young spruce tree, it uttered a sharp, hard chip. It was the first Red-faced Warbler I had ever seen; and its red face, black cap, gray back, and white rump suggested to my mind a miniature of the European Bulfinch. The bird was so fearless, and the place so confined, that I had some difficulty in securing the specimen in good condition. The male was not seen. After a close search an old nest was discovered on the ground; and I was about to conclude that It belonged to my bird and was as yet unfinished, when I descried a small opening close beside It among the stones and pine needles; on parting some blooming honeysuckles (Lonicera ciliosa) and moss, I discovered the nest,: most artfully concealed. In it were four eggs, containing small embryos which were easily extracted, the shells being thick and hard. The nest rested on a mass of dry leaves and spruce needles, and was entirely covered up and concealed by the honeysuckles. It Is well built, being composed of a neatly felted mass of plant-stems and strips of fine hark, lined with soft vegetable fibres and cow-hairs.
W. W. Price (1888) was the first to report and describe a nest of ~he red-faced warbler, which he found in Ramsey Canyon in the Huachucas on May 31, 1888; his nest “was placed on sloping ground in a slight hollow and contained four fresh eggs.” He had seen the bird fly to a clump of columbine which grew on the bank of a creek.
A few sprays of the columbine hid the nest so completely that had not the bird been frightened and directly off from it, I should not have found it. * * * The structure was a very poor attempt at nest-building, and made of such loose material that it crumbled to fragments on being removed. The chief substance was fine fibrous weed stalks, while the lining consisted of fine grass, rootlets, plant fibres, and a few hairs. Skeleton leaves and bits of fine bark were scattered sparingly throughout the nest. Leaves and other rubbish had drifted with the wind or had been scratched up all around, to a level with the rim, so that one could hardly see where the nest proper left off. Inside the nest was about two and one half inches wide by one and one half inches in depth; outside it was about five inches wide by three inches in depth. The ground on which the nest was placed was so damp that the bottom part of it was badly decayed.
In the same region, Swarth (1904) found a nest that “was well concealed under an old rotten log, on a steep bank by the side of a trail, aild could never have been seen had not the bird darted from the nest when it was approached.” Howard’s (1899) first nest was “on a side hill under a tuft of grass.” The only nest that I have ever seen was also in a branch of Ramsey Canyon; we had previously seen the bird go to the nest while building it, and on May 26, 1922, we photographed (p1. 72, lower) and collected the nest with a set of four fresh eggs. The nest was located on a wooded open slope, close to a trail, and was in a depression in the ground at the foot of a tiny oak sprout, among a litter of fallen leaves and partially under some glass and other herbage, but it was not any too well hidden. It was made of dead leaves, dry grasses and fine strips of inner bark of cedar, and was lined with fine grass and horsehair. All of these Huachuca Mountains nests were at elevations ranging from 7,000 to 8,500 feet.
In the Santa Rita Mountains, Dr. Sutton (1943) found the redfaced warbler nesting in the aspen copses at an elevation of about 8,000 feet; a nest containing small young was found on May 29 “on the ground in a low bank under aspens.”
One of the five nests of this warbler in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, was taken by Virgil W. Owen in the Chiricabua Mountains, Ariz., from the side of a bank in a narrow canyon, “in a depression under a projecting rock, which was overhung by a bunch of grass which entirely concealed both rock and nest.” The main l)ody of the nest is made externally of a large number of coarse pine needles and internally of grasses; it is lined with the finest of plant fibers and a quantity of reddish brown and white cow hair. Another is made externally of many coarse strips from heavy weed stalks, and still another was made mainly of strips of cedar bark, the latter composing most of each nest. I suspect that the lining in some of these nests may be deer hair, as these animals are fairly common there.
Eggs: The red-faced warbler seems to lay three or four eggs to a set. The eggs are ovate, some tending to short ovate or elongate ovate, and have only a slight gloss. They are white, finely and delicately speckled with “auburn,” “Mars brown,” or “snuff brown,” with undermarkings of “dusky drab.” In general the markings are very fine and few seem to be large enough to be called spots or blotches; sometimes they are so light as t.o be almost imperceptible. The speckles are frequently scattered over the entire egg, although there is usually a concentration at the large end. The measurements of 44 eggs averaged 16.5 by 12.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 17.9 by 13.0, 16.6 by 13.5, 14.3 by 12.2, and 15.3 by 12.0 millimeters (Harris).
Young: We have no information on the incubation of the eggs or on the care and development of the young.
Plumages: T have seen no small nestlings, but the fully grown young bird in the juvenal plumage is very dull-looking, with no trace of the red face. The upper parts, including the top and sides of the head and the back are uniform sooty brown, sometimes browner on the crown or more huffy on the nape; the rump is white; the wings and tail are as in the adult, except that the middle and greater wing coverts are tipped with buff, forming two narrow wing-bars; the throat and breast are brownish gray, becoming whitish on the abdomen.
The postjuvenal molt begins in June; a specimen taken June 13 shows a few black feathers coming in the crown and a few red feathers on the forehead, chin and sides of the neck. I have seen this molt in progress on birds taken June 21 and July 6 and 9; and I have a bird in my collection, taken July 13, that has completed the molt into the first winter plumage. This molt apparently involves all the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail. The sexes are alike in the juvenal plumage.
The first winter plumage is much like the winter plumage of the adult of the same sex, but the plumages of the young birds are always duller than those of the corresponding adults, the red being much paler or inclining to flesh color, the nuchal patch tinged with buff and the gray of the upper parts browner. We have no specimens showing a prenuptial molt; what specimens we have indicate that the dull, first winter plumage is worn until the following July; at least, I have seen what were apparently one-year-old birds molting out of a first winter plumage on June 27 and on July 9. If there is a partial prenuptial molt, it must occur while the birds are in winter quarters, and specimens from there are scarce.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in June, July, and August; I have seen the beginning of it as early as June 10; Swarth (1904) says it takes place in August. The June birds I have seen are all in worn plumage, and the August birds I have examined are in fresh plumage. In the fresh fall plumage the white of the nape, rump, and under parts are often tinged with pink, which gradually fades or wears away during the spring.
Food: Nothing seems to have been published on the food of the red-faced warbler, which is probably largely, if not wholly, insectivorous. Its method of feeding, as described under “Behavior,” indicates a diet similar to that of other wood warbiers.
Behavior: H. NY. Henshaw (1875) wrote in his notebook:
While collecting in the early evening in the pine woods, a few angry chirps coming from the thick foliage of a spruce attracted my attention, and in a moment a robin flew out in hot haste closely followed by a small bird, which after a short chase returned, and with a few satisfied chirps called together several young, whose presence I for the first time was thus made aware of. The old bird immediately began to search tor food, moving like a Chickadee over the limbs, and flying out now and then for a short distance to snap up an Insect, which was Instantly given to one or the other of the several young that, with beseeching notes and cries, followed the old one abont as it moved from one part of the tree to another. * ï *
Just a month later [in August], on visiting Mount Graham, I not only saw the species again, but it proved to be a common bird of this locality, flocks of ten or fifteen not being unusual among the pines and spruces; it frequented tbese trees almost exclusively, only rarely being seen on the bushes that fringed the streams. Its habits are a rather strange compound, now resembling those of Warblers, again recalling the Redstarts, but more often perhaps bringing to mind the less graceful motions of the familiar Titmice. Their favorite hunting places appeared to be the extremities of the limbs of the spruces, over the branches of which they passed with quick motion, and a peculiar and constant sidewise jerk of the tail.
When thus engaged, especially when high overhead, they might easily be passed by, as a busy group of Titmice intent only on satisfying their hunger. They appear to obtain most of their food from the branches, seizing the insects when at rest; but they are abundantly able to take their prey on the wing, and accomplish this much after the style of the Redstarts. Their disposition seems to prompt them to sociability with other species, and occasionally I found them accompanying the Audubon’s Warblers, and imitating them in their short flights from tree to tree, occasionally paying flying visits to the falien logs and even to the ground.
Dr. Walter P. Taylor tells me that the red-faced warbler is not shy, and “is characterized by a curiosity that usually discloses it to view and enables one to really see it much more easily than is the case with many or mo~t other warbiers.” He saw one hawking for insects, making two sorties in the air while he watched it; it has a peculiar “flitty” flight. The birds that he saw in the Catalina Mountains stayed more in the aspens than in the pines. But he noted one in the Chiricahua Mountains in the oak brush just below the pines.
Voice: Dr. Taylor refers to the song in his notes as quite close to that of the yellow warbler; he calls it a whistled song with variations, “a tinle a tinle a tinle t8ee tsee tawee t&weep,” and says that it is “more ringing and bell-like than that of Grace’s warbler, which is often associated with it in the yellow pines.” He says that the chip call-note is conspicuous, and he mentions another note as p8st. Henshaw (1875) says: “Save in being rather louder and harsher, their chirps resemble the notes of the Yellow-rump Warbiers.”
Field marks: A gray bird with a black cap, a red face and throat, a white rump, and white wing bars, could not be mistaken for anything but a red-faced warbler. No other North American bird looks at all like it.
Winter: Dr. Alexander F. Skutc.h contributes the following notes: “On the Sierra de Tecp~n, in west-central Guatemala, the red-faced warbler wintered in small numbers from September 13 to March, chiefly in the mixed forests of pine, oak, alder, arbutus and other broad-leafed trees, between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level. These pretty warblers were usually found in the mixed flocks of Townsend’s warbiers and other small birds, only one or more rarely two in a flock. When there was a single red-faced member of the company, it was nearly always silent; but when two chanced to be together, they would usually be singing. On September 29, 1933, soon after the return of the red-faced warblers to the Sierra, I caine upon two of them foraging in the same alder tree. They sang over and over a clear, mellow warble, as fine a song as I have heard of any member of the family, and twice welcome in those dreary, misty, rain-drenched days at the height of the wet season, when scarcely any bird sang. They continued to repeat their songs as they foraged, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes answering each other, and kept this up for perhaps half an hour. Just as I started to walk away from them, I noticed that they had flown together and were fighting. After a few moments, they separated and each went his own way, repeating his song.
“On a number of other occasions I found two individuals together; one or both: doubtless depending on their sexes: would be singing; and usually, if I waited long enough, one would drive the other away. The victorious bird might sing a little hymn of triumph upon the retreat of his rival, but soon would fall silent, and forage in peace among his companions of other species. These singing bouts were all staged during the fall months; from December onward, when the birds were well settled in their winter home, I found them alone and silent; until in March they resumed their beautiful song in anticipation of their departure for their northern nesting grounds.
“Such singing in rivalry has been paralleled in my experience by other migratory birds which are solitary during the winter months, including the yellow warbler, the black and white warbler, the blueheaded vireo and the blue-gray gnatcatcher, and by the males of nonmigratory warblers which are solitary at this season, as Kaup’s redstart (Myioloru8 miniatu.s), or of those which remain paired and continue to defend their territory, as Delattre’s warbler (Ba8ileuterus delattrii).
“In March, long before the majority of the migratory warblers, the red-faced warbler vanished from the Sierra de Tecp~n. Except on the plains of Chimaltenango at the foot of the Sierra, I have not met this bird in other parts of Guatemala.”
Breeding range: The red-faced warbler breeds north to central and central eastern Arizona (30 miles south of San Francisco Mountains, Mogollon Plateau, and Camp Apache) and southwestern New Mexico (Mogollon Mountains, Powderhorn Canyon, and probably Fort Bayard). East to southwestern New Mexico (Fort Bayard) and northwestern Chihuahua (probably Barranca). South probably through the highlands of Mexico to southern Guatemala.
Winter range: It winters in southern Mexico from Morelos (Cuernavaca) and Veracruz (Jalapa) to northern Gaxaca (La Parada and Cinco Senores).
Migration: A late date of spring departure is: Guatemala: above Tecpiin, March 5.
Early dates of spring arrival are: Texas: Water Canyon of the Magdalena Mountains, April 19. New Mexico: 35 miles northeast of Silver City, April 19. Arizona: Tucson area, April 9; Willow Creek, May 3.
An early date of fall arrival is: Guatemala: above Tecp~in, September 13.
Late dates of fall departure are: Arizona: San Francisco Mountains, September 4; Chiricahua Mountains, September 21. New Mex: mo: Little Rocky Creek, August 21.
Egg dates: Arizona: 12 records, May 6 to June 19; 12 records, May 29 to June 7, indicating the height of the season (Harris).