A breeding species in the Pacific Northwest, the Townsend’s Warbler sometimes wanders considerably to the east in the fall. With much of its life spent in the treetops, the Townsend’s Warbler is somewhat difficult to study, and many details of its breeding ecology remain to be discovered.
Nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird has been recorded, but not enough nests have been monitored to understand how frequent it may be in some areas. Spruce budworm outbreaks may influence the population size in some parts of its range.
On this page
Description of the Townsend’s Warbler
The Townsend’s Warbler has green upperparts, gray wings with two white wing bars, a yellow breast and white belly, and black streaks on the flanks. It has a yellow face with a darker patch behind the eye.
Males have a black throat and cap. Length: 5 in. Wingspan: 8 in.
Females are simlar to males but less strongly marked. Throat is pale yellow, less strekaing on the back. Streaks on side less deifned than on males. Winter males and immatures are similar to female plumage.
Seasonal change in appearance
Fall and winter birds are similar in pattern, but are duller.
Immatures are similar to fall adults.
Townsend’s Warblers inhabit coniferous forests. During winter, also oak woodlands.
Townsend’s Warblers eat insects.
Townsend’s Warblers forage actively among the upper foliage of trees.
Townsend’s Warblers breed from Alaska south to the northwestern U.S. They winter along the west coast of the U.S. and in Mexico. The population appears stable or increasing.
Townsend’s Warblers often join mixed-species flock in the winter, associating with chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, and other warblers.
Townsend’s Warblers sometimes occur as fall vagrants in the eastern U.S.
The song is a series of buzzy notes. A high-pitched flight call is also given.
- Black-throated Green Warblers have mostly yellow faces and yellow in the vent area.
- Hermit Warblers lack the dark cheek markings of the Townsend’s Warbler.
The Townsend’s Warbler’s nest is a cup of grasses, moss, and bark and is lined with finer materials. It is placed on top of a branch of a tree or shrub.
Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-13 days and fledge at about 8-10 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Townsend’s 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 Townsend’s Warbler – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
DENDROICA TOWNSENDI (Townsend)
This warbler always -reminds me of our familiar black-throated green warbler, which it resembles slightly in color pattern but more particularly in its habits and its drowsy song. Its voice is as much associated with the northwestern forests of tall firs as is that of our eastern bird with the pine woods of New England. Its breeding range is confined to the coniferous forests from Prince William Sound and the upper Yukon in Alaska south to Washington and east to southwestern Alberta and western Montana, but it is better known as a migrant through the Rocky Mountain region in general and as a winter visitant in California.
Samuel F. Rathbun writes to me from Seattle, Wash., that Townsend’s warbler is widely distributed throughout that region. “It is found in the lowlands to some extent as a summer resident, but by far the greater number of the birds will be found summering in the more mountainous and unsettled parts of the region. In some parts it is abundant. During the migrations I have noted it following the deciduous growth and nearby conifers along water courses, but when settled in its summer home, it is almost entirely restricted to the high conifers, a habit that seems to be followed even during rainy and stormy days. I am of the opinion that it must nest at a considerable height, for on several occasions I have seen the birds carrying material into trees at a height of over one hundred feet.”
Taylor and Shaw (1927) write: “On entering the great forest of the Pacific Northwest, with its solitude, the deep-shaded grandeur of its brown-barked pillars and its stillness, one can almost imagine himself in a different world. Incessantly repeated, apparently from the very crowns of the trees, comes the song of the Townsend warbler, denizen of upper foliage strata. Found in early summer from Alaska south to the State of Washington, the Townsend warbler finds on Mount Rainier approximately the southern limit of its breeding range.” Similar haunts seem to have been chosen wherever the species has been found breeding.
Spring: The spring migration, apparently directly northward from Mexico, seems to be quite prolonged. Dr. Alexander F. Skutch tells me that the last of the winter visitors do not leave Guatemala until about the first of May. Professor Cooke (1904) says that “an early migrating Townsend warbler was seen on April 9 in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona. Migrants from Mexico begin to enter southern California April 14 to 20. * * * First arrivals have been reported from Loveland, Cob., May 11, 1889.” And “the average date of the first seen during five years at Columbia Falls, Mont., is May 7.” Mrs. Amelia S. Allen writes to me from Berkeley, Calif., that Towsend’s warbler is an abundant fall and spring migrant in California, where it is also a common winter visitant. “In the spring they begin to increase about the middle of March, when singing flocks go through the live oak trees, feeding on the small oak worms. They become less conspicuous after the middle of April, but if there are rains in the first half of May to delay migrations, occasional flocks are seen. My latest date is May 17, 1915.”
Rathbun, in his Washington notes, writes: “In the spring of 1916, in the Lake Crescent region, a great majority of the individuals came in two distinct waves. The first occurred on April 28 and this lasted for two days, on the second of which the birds were less numerous. After an interval of a day on which we failed to see any of these warblers, there followed a second wave, on May 1, much larger than the one preceding. It consisted of hundreds of these warblers, together with individuals of other species, the main body of which followed the belt of deciduous trees along the shore of the lake. This fact we verified by ascending the adjacent mountain side to a considerable elevation during the movement, where we found but few birds. Descending to the lake level to note the migration, we found the birds close to the ground, the trees being of small size. As most of the Townsend’s warbiers were males in high plumage, the sight was most attractive. All were in constant song and flitting about with rapid movements. In their company were many chestnutbacked chickadees, a few Sitka kinglets, many Hammond’s flycatchers, and now and then an Audubon’s warbler and a red-breasted nuthatch. This movement began about half past eight in the morning and lasted until ten o’clock, when the number of birds began to diminish rapidly, and during the remainder of the day was inconsequential.”
On April 25, 1917, he saw a similar flight at the same place. “The day was rather warm and somewhat overcast, and the wave continued intermittently throughout the greater part of the day, the song of Townsend’s warbler being much in evidence most of the time. In this movement the birds passed by in small detached companies at intervals, but the aggregate number was large.”
Nesting: Not too much is known about the nesting habits of Townsend’s warbler, but enough is known to indicate that nests reported in willows during the last century were evidently wrongly identified. The species is now known to nest only in firs, though possibly it may sometimes be found to select other conifers as nesting sites. Nests and eggs are still very scarce in collections.
The first authentic nests were found by J. H. Bowles (1908) near Lake Chelan, Wash., on June 20, 1908. The two nests, each containing four newly hatched young: were both placed about twelve feet up in small firs, one some five feet ant on a limb, the other close against the main trunk. Both were saddled upon the limb, and not placed in a fork nor in a crotch.
The construction of both nests was identical, and entirely different from any of the descriptions that I have read. They were firmly built, rather hulky, and decidedly shallow for the nest of a warbler. The material used appeared to be mostly cedar bark, with a few slender fir twigs interwoven. Externally they were patched with a silvery flax-like plant fiber, while the lining seemed to be entirely of the stems of moss flowers. To an eastern collector It resembled an unusually bulky and considerably flattened nest of the Black-throated Green Warbler, lacking any sign of feathers, however, In its construction.
A nest with five eggs is in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, taken by C. deB. Green on Graham Island, British Columbia, June 24, 1912. It is described as placed “on top of the big limb of spruce tree,” and is large, compact, and well-built, being made largely of fine plant fibers, mixed with strips of grasses, mosses, lichens, fine strips of inner bark, plant down, and a few spider coccoons: all firmly woven together and neatly and smoothly lined with long, fine, white hairs and one feather. It measures externally 21,4 inches in height and 3 by 3’/2 in diameter; the cup is 1½ inches deep and about 2 inches in diameter.
A set in my collection now in the U. S. National Museum was taken by F. R. Decker in Chelan County, Wash., on June 23, 1923; the nest was about 15 feet up and 8 feet out on a limb of a fir tree and contained five fresh eggs. Both birds remained close while the nest was being taken. Two nests in the Doe Museum, at Gainesville, Fla., were taken by J. H. Bowles in Washington, 9 and 10 feet up in small, slender firs, June 2 and 4.
Eggs: Either 3, 4, or 5 eggs are the numbers in the few recorded sets. The 5 eggs in the Thayer collection are ovate and have only a slight gloss. The white ground color is speckled and spotted with tones of “bay,” “auburn,” “chestnut brown,” “Mars brown,” or “russet,” with undertones of “pale brownish drab,” or “vinaceous drab.” Some of the eggs have markings of two or three shades of the darker browns, such as “bay,” or “auburn,” while others have tones of a single lighter brown, such as “russet,” interspersed with the drab spots. There is not a well defined wreat.h on any of these eggs, although the spots are denser at the large end. The measurements of 40 eggs average 17.4 by 12.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.0 by 12.7, 17.3 by 13.6, 15.2 by 12.7, and 17.4 by 12.3 millimeters (Harris).
Plumages: Maj. Allan Brooks (1934) gives the following good description of the juvenal plumage of Townsend’s warbler: “Upper surface brownish olive, greener on dorsum and grayer on crown; lores and auriculars dusky brown, a broad supercilium and malar stripe whitish, faintly tinged with yellow; chin and throat dusky olive gray passing into white on the ventral region and crissum, the flanks and breast streaked with dusky; wings with two white bars formed by the tips of the greater and lesser coverts, tertials edged with ash gray, the black central shafts of the white bars seen in the second (first winter) plumage are barely indicated; tail as in second plumage.”
Evidently the juvena.l plumage is worn for only a very short time, for in the bird thus described, collected on July 7, “a few yellow feathers of the second plumage are appearing.” Apparently, the postjuvenal molt is completed in July and August, and involves the contour plumage and the wing coverts only.
The young male in first winter plumage is similar to the old male at that season, but with less black on the head and throat, cheeks more olive, black streaks on back and sides obsolete, and yellow of the throat paler. The young female differs from the adult female in a similar way. There is evidently a partial prenuptial molt in late winter or early spring, but I have not been able to trace it. Apparently the black throat is acquired by the young male at this molt, and perhaps enough of the head and body plumage to make the young bird appear nearly adult, though the worn and faded juvenal wings and tail will distinguish it.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in July and August. Ridgway (1902) describes the fall and winter male plumage as “similar to the spring and summer plumage, but all the black areas much broken or obscured; that of the pileum and hindneck by broad olivegreen margins to the feathers, the black forming mesial or central streaks, that of the auricular patch overlaid by olive-green tips to the feathers, and that of the throat replaced by nearly uniform lemon yellow, with black appearing as spots or blotches on sides of chest; black streaks on back, etc., more or less concealed.” The adult female fall plumage is “similar to the spring and summer plumage, but upper parts slightly browner olive-green, with the streaks obsolete, or nearly so; sides and flanks tinged with brownish.”
Although considerable wearing away of the concealing tips of the feathers occurs during the winter, tl~us brightening the nuptial plumage, there is evidently at least a partial prenuptial molt, especially about the head and throat, at which the clear black throat of the male is assumed and perhaps more of the body plumage renewed.
Stanley G. Jewett (1944) describes four specimens of adult males that are clearly hybrids between this species and the hermit warbler.
Food: Professor Beal (1907) examined the contents of 31 stomachs of Townsend’s warblers taken in California from October through January, of which he says: “The animal food consists of insects and a few spiders, and amounts to over 95 percent of the food during the time specified. Of this, bugs make up 42 percent, mostly stink-bugs (Pentatomidae) and a few leaf-hoppers and scales.” Several stomachs were entirely filled with stink-bugs.
Rymenoptera, consisting of both wasps and ants, are eaten to the extent of 25 percent of the food. Most of them are winged species. Perhaps the most striking point in the food of this bird is ‘the great number of weevils or snout-beetles represented. They amount to over 20 percent of the food, while all other beetles form less than 1 percent. The greater number of these Insects were of the species Diodz,rhvncltu8 ~ituroide8, a weevil which destroys the staminate blossoms of coniferous trees. Five stomachs contained, respectively, 68, 65, 53, 50, and 35 of these beetles, or 271 In all. * * * Representatives also of another family of snout-beetles very destructive to timber were present in a few stomachs. These were the engravers (Scolytidae), which lay their eggs beneath the bark of trees, where they hatch, and the larvae bore In every direction. Caterpillars and a few miscellaneous insects and some spiders make up the remainder of the animal food.
The less than 5 percent of vegetable food “consists of a few seeds and leaf galls.”
Gordon W. Gullion tells me that in Eugene, Oreg., from early January until the first of April 1948, Townsend’s warbiers were observed at a feeding station almost daily, eating cheese, marshmallows, and peanut butter.
Behavior: A marked characteristic of Townsend’s warbiers is their fondness for the tree tops, especially on their breeding grounds and to some extent at other seasons. In the coniferous forests which they frequent in summer, they confine their activities almost entirely to the tops of the tallest fir trees, where they travel rapidly, stopping only long enough to glean their food and then hastening onward, returning, perhaps, over the same trees in their active restless foraging.
Later in the summer and as migration time draws near, they are frequently seen at lower levels, among deciduous trees and in second growth woods, often in association with kniglets, chickadees, other warblers, and juncos.
Voice: Mrs. Allen (MS.) renders the song as a “weazy weazy ‘weazy weazy tweea, rising in spirals, and the call-note a soft chip, not so metallic as the lutescent’s, and less emphatic than the Audubon’s.” According to Rathbun (MS.), “its song is heard during May and June quite persistently under all climatic conditions.” Dr. Merrill (1898) says that the song, as he heard it in Idaho, “usually consists of five notes, de.~ de~ dd: d~ d~, all, especially the first three, uttered in the peculiar harsh drawl of D. ‘viren.s. Later in the season this song changes somewhat.” This second song was heard in low second growth. Mr. Rathbun also refers in his notes to a different song, heard in some young second growth; the bird was “singing softly as if to itself, this being a much more finished performance than the ordinary song, although identical in construction, the distinction being an elaboration of the song in full in softer tones.” Ralph Hoffmann (1927) found the song of Townsend’s warbler difficult to distinguish from that of the black-throated gray warbler. “The Townsend Warbler’s song has less of the drawling inflection in the opening notes than the Black.throated Gray’s and often ends with a prolonged ee-zee. A song noted by the writer in the Olympics in western Washington was transcribed as a hoarse 8wee 8wee ~wee zee.”
Field marks: The adult male Townsend’s warbler is distinctively marked, having the crown, cheeks, and throat black, with bright yellow spaces between these areas, and an olive-green back and bright yellow breast, both streaked with black; it has two prominent white wing bars and considerable white on the outer tail feathers. The female has a similar pattern, but the colors are much duller and she has no black throat. Young and adults in the fall are much like the adult female in spring, but are more or less clouded with brownish. Tbere is no other western warbler that is much like it.
Fall: Theed Pearse tells me that he has seen Townsend’s warblers on migration through Vancouver Island, British Columbia, as early as August 13 and as late as October 9, but gives no winter records. Rathburn gives me two winter records for the vicinity of Seattle, Wash.; D. E. Brown took two males on January 9, 1921, and saw “a number of others”; and a week later he collected a female. These were doubtless, winter casuals, as the summer residents and transients pass through Oregon in October or earlier.
Mrs. Allen writes to me from Berkeley, Calif.: “The Townsend Warbler is an abundant fall and spring migrant and a common winter visitant. In Berkeley the average date of arrival in the fall is September 28 (18 records), the earliest August 27, 1931. They are most abundant during October, after which they are reduced to winter numbers.”
Henshaw (1875) writes:
At Mount Graham, Arjz., in September, this warbler was found in considerable numbers, though the few taken were procured with no little difficulty, for they almost invariably were seen in the tops of the tallest trees, where a glimpse might now and then be had of them as they dashed out after flying insects, or flew from tree to tree in their always onward migratory course. The tracts of pine woods they shunned entirely, but affected the firs and spruces, and their flights from point to point were regulated and made longer and shoiter by the presence or absence of these trees. Their movements were exceedingly rapid; a moment spent in passing in and out the interlacing branches, a few hurried sweeps at their extremities, and they were off to the next adjoining tree to repeat the process again and again till lost sight of in the dense woods.
Winter: A few straggling Townsend’s warblers spend the winter occasionally as far north as Oregon and Washington; the species is fairly common from central California southward; but the main body of the species retires to Mexico and Central America. Mrs. Allen tells me that they are quite abundant in the redwood trees of California in winter; and in midwinter, she has “many records of their coming under the eaves of the house, where they seem to be taking spiders.”
Dr. Skutch has contributed the following account: “Townsend’s warblers winter in vast numbers in the highlands of Guatemala. From their arrival in September until shortly before the departure of the last in May, I considered these the most abundant of all birds, whether resident or migratory, between 7,000 and 10,000 feet above sea-level on the Sierra de Tecp~n in west-central Guatemala. Here they were almost equally numerous in the forest of pine, oak, alder and arbutus and in the nearly pure stands of lofty cypress trees (C’upre8sus lenthamii) on the mountain-top. But they are widespread over the Guatemalan altos, from 5,000 to 10,000 feet above sea-level, and even pass the winter at considerably lower altitudes, where pine woods locally replace the broad-leafed forest prevalent in these less elevated regions. Thus on the Finca Moc~, a huge coffee plantation lying on the southern side of the Volc~n Atitl~n, a local stand of pine reaches to about 3,000 feet above sea-level. Among these pines I found Townsend’s warblers wintering down to at least 3,400 feet, in company with such birds as hermit warbiers and Coues’ flycatchers: all of them highland species which I failed to find at so low an altitude in the neighboring dicotyledonous woods more typical of the region.
“By the time the Townsend’s warblers began to arrive from the North, the great majority of the resident birds of the Sierra de TecpAn had finished breeding for the year, and those of sociable habits had begun to flock. The pretty Hartlaub’s warbiers (Vemnivora 8uperciliosa) formed the nuclei of the mixed companies of small birds which roamed through the rain-drenched woods at the beginning of September. The newly arrived Townsend’s warbiers at once joined these flocks, falling in with the resident birds as though they had never been absent in far northern lands. Soon they outnumbered all other birds in these motley parties. They were monotonously abundant; and despite their beauty, I was more than once exasperated, when I had striven until my neck ached to obtain an adequate glimpse of some small, elusive bird flitting through the high treetops, to find at last that it was just one more Townsend’s warbler. There was always another of the same kind much lower among the branches, which I might have admired with less flexure of the neck! At 5,000 feet and below, the plainly attired Tennessee warbler replaces the elegant Townsend’s warbler as the most abundant member of the mixed flocks.
“By the middle of April, the Townsend’s warblers on the Sierra de Tecp6~n began to sing: a dreamy, lazy sort of song, which reminded me much of that of the black-throated green warbler. Through the remainder of the month, I repeatedly heard this simple song, sounding always as though it came from far away. Soon the ranks of the Townsend’s warblers began to thin; and after May 2 I saw them no more. Males were present as late as April 28; but the last that I saw, on May 2, was a female. The withdrawal of the countless black-andyellow warblers, together with that of the other migratory species that flocked with them, left a void among the treetops, which was not filled until their return just 4 months later.
“Early dates of fall arrival in Guatemala are: Guatemala City (Anthony), September 7; Sierra de Tecp~n, September 2, 1933; Huehuetenango, September 11, 1934. Late dates of spring departure from Guatemala are: Guatemala City (Anthony), May 1; Sierra de Tecp~n, May 2, 1933.”
Dickey and van Rossem (1938) say that “Townsend’s warbler is a decidedly uncommon species in El Salvador, which probably marks about the southern limit of the winter range. The winter distribution, locally, is practically confined to the oaks and pines of the interior mountains where conditions most closely parallel those prevailing in the breeding range.
Range: Western North America.
Breeding range: Townsend’s warbler breeds north to southern Alaska (Seldovia, Port Nell Juan, and Cordova) ; and southern Yukon (Lapie River and Sheldon Lake). East to eastern Yukon (Sheldon Lake and Lake Marsh) ; central to southeastern British Columbia (Atlin, Bear Lake, Tacla Lake, and Reveistoke) ; southwestern Alberta (Banif National Park); and western Montana (Fortine, Columbia Falls, Great Falls, and Red Lodge). South to central southern Montana (Red Lodge) ; northwestern Wyoming (Mammoth Hot Springs); northern Idaho (Falcon and Moscow); and southern Washington (Blue Mountains, Preston, and Mount Adams). West to western Washington (Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Seattle, and Belling. ham); western British Columbia (Comox, Vancouver Island, and the Queen Charlotte Islands) ; and southern Alaska (Craig, Baranof Island, Glacier, Cordova, and Seldovia).
Winter range: The Townsend’s warbler is found in winter in two widely separated areas. It is found in varying numbers in the coastal region of California from Mount St. Helena, Sonoma County, south to San Diego, and on the Santa Barbara Islands. A specimen collected at Patagonia, southeastern Arizona on December 3, may have been wintering. It also winters in the mountains of western Mexico and Central America from Guerrero (Tlalixtaquilla) ; and the Federal District (Tlalpan); through Oaxaca (La Parada and Totontepec); Guatemala (Huehuetenango, Tecp6n, Duefias, and Guatemala); El Salvador (Los Esesmiles and Mount Cacaguatique) ; to central northern Nicaragua (Matagalpa).
Migration: Late dates of spring departure are: El Salvador: San Jos6 del Sacore, March 16. (iuatemala: Tecp~n, May 2. Nayarit: Tres Marfas Islands, May 11. Sonora: Oposura, May 31. Texas: Boot Spring, Chisos Mountains, May 16. New Mexico: Rinconada, May 6. Arizona: Rock Canyon, Santa Catalina Mountains, May 25. California: Buena Vista, May 10.
Early dates of spring arrival are: Hidalgo: Jacala, March 28. New Mexico: Apache, April 23. Arizona: Tombstone, April 3. Colorado: Loveland, May 11. Wyoming: Cheyenne, May 11. Montana: Columbia Falls, May 4. Idaho: Cocur d’Alene, April 29. Oregon: Sutlierlin, April 21. Washington: Bellingham, April 25. British Columbia: Courtenay, March 28; Atlin, May 18. Alaska: Craig, April 27.
Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska: Ketehikan, September 5. British Columbia: Atlin, September 1; Okanagan Landing, September 15. Washington: Tacoma, October 3. Alberta: Jasper Park, September 8. Idaho-Priest River, September 10. Montana: Missoula, August 31. Wyoming: Laramie, October 18. Colorado: Fort Morgan, October 12. Utali: Bryce Canyon, October 7. Arizona: Mineral Creek, Final County, November 2. New Mexico: near Corona, October 18. Oklahoma: Kenton, September 27. Texas: Glenn Springs, Brewster County, October 19. Chihuahua: Durazno, November 7.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Oregon: Fremont National Forest, August 20. California: August 26. Utah: Beaver Creek Canyon, August 10. Arizona: San Francisco Mountain, August 21. Wyoming: Laramie, August 11. Colorado-Estes Park, August 14. New Mexico: Apache, August 2. Texas: Pulliam Canyon, Chisos Mountains, August 26. Chihuahua: Saltillo, August 28. Guatemala: Tecp~n, September 2. El Salvador: Divisadero, September 27.
Casual records: On May 12, 1868, a Townsend’s warbler was collected near Coa.tesville, Pa. A female sepcimen was collected September 17, 1939, at Gulfport, Miss. On August 18, 1934 one was reported seen at East Hampton, Long Island; another was closely observed by several competent observers in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, N. Y., May 8 to 10, 1947.
Egg dates: British Columbia: 2 records, June 7 and 24. Oregon: 3 records, June 7 to 21.
Washington: 18 records, May 24 to June 24; 9 records, June 8 to 19, indicating the height of the season (Harris).