Amazing Hooded Warblers

Hooded warbler singing by JanetandPhil

Hooded warbler singing (photo by JanetandPhil – CC licence)

It’s a hot, humid day in mid-July, and a hooded warbler sings his clear, whistled “ta-wit, ta-wit, ta-wit, tee-yo” song. Because hooded warblers have one of the loudest and clearest of warbler songs, it can be heard a long distance, which may be why I can hear it despite a slight hearing loss as I age.

But hooded warbler song is tricky. Individual males have their own version of songs, especially the first several syllables. I’ve learned to listen for the last “tee-yo,” which I hear as “wee-zu” to identify them. This works most times unless a male decides to sing another version that rises in pitch at the end and, to my ear, sounds totally different from his usual songs.

At least hooded warbler song is distinctive, unlike the “buzzy” songs of some warblers. Hooded warblers also have a distinctive look that they keep throughout the year. The black hood, for which they are named, encircles their bright yellow head like a monk’s cowl.

Even the females have a trace of that hood or, at the very least, a black spot between their bill and their eyes. Those eyes are unusually large and dark, larger than 32 other warbler species.

Their breasts and bellies are also bright yellow and their backs and tails yellow-olive. They frequently flick those tails showing white outer tail feathers, which is still another identifying characteristic.

Best of all, when many fall migrating warblers have exchanged their flashy spring and summer feathers for dull fall and winter ones, hooded warblers remain their black-cowled, yellow-bodied selves.

Hooded warbler female by Joby Joseph

Hooded warbler female (Joby Joseph – CC licence)

Seeing these warblers, though, is not easy because they are understory skulkers, often feeding on or near the ground. They also nest close to the ground in shrubs and saplings.

Called “forest dependent gap specialists” by Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, who has studied hooded warblers extensively at her Hemlock Hill Research Station in northwestern Pennsylvania, Stutchbury writes in The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania that singing hooded warblers are most abundant in deciduous forests and breed in tree-fall gaps where sunshine encourages thick undergrowth.

Unfortunately, hooded warblers are also attracted by logged fragmented forests, and so are brown-headed cowbirds. In one study, by Stutchbury’s student, Margaret Eng, over half the hooded warbler nests in fragmented forests had cowbird eggs, and, as Stutchbury writes in her excellent book, The Bird Detective, “nesting success was so low that their fatal attraction to partially logged areas was actually driving the population numbers down…”

Despite this, though, hooded warbler numbers in Pennsylvania have increased an amazing 71% between the first and second atlasing projects. This is partly due to the expansion of their core range in western Pennsylvania, especially the northwest, as well as in Pennsylvania’s Ridge and Valley Province.

Like several other bird species, such as Carolina wrens and northern cardinals, hooded warbles are a southern species moving steadily north into New York state and Ontario. Scientists are not certain why, but Stutchbury says that “maturation of forest, combined with a possible response to climate change, may be important factors.”

Hooded warbler nest by Richard Bonnett

Hooded warbler nest (Richard Bonnett – CC licence)

Certainly, here on our mountaintop Ridge and Valley Province home, I hear and see more hooded warblers than I used to. Last summer I heard them along Laurel Ridge Trail, beside the Far Field Road, and along Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails, all forest areas with a shrubby understory.

Hooded warblers return to our mountain from the last week in April to the first in May, and we count as many as seven during our participation in the Pennsylvania Migratory Bird Day count the second Saturday in May. The males arrive first and occupy the same territory they had the previous year by chasing off intruders.

Females settle on a territory and mate shortly after arrival, favoring males that sing four to seven songs per minute. Possibly this signals to a female that such males will be strong enough to feed their young the average thousand times they deliver food during the raising of one clutch of young hooded warblers. According to Stutchbury, hooded warblers that sing less are more likely to have unfaithful mates. In fact, one-third of female hooded warblers have offspring fathered by a neighboring male.

The females choose nest sites in shrubs or saplings seven to 63 inches from the ground, although 25 inches is the average. It takes females two to six days to choose a site and build an open cup nest woven of soft inner bark, grasses, and plant-down with an outer wrapping of dead leaves, some of which hang down and camouflage the nest.

In Pennsylvania, blackberry, beech, black cherry, and prickly gooseberry are favorite nesting plants, but maple leaf viburnum, white ash, black and blue cohoshes, sugar maple, wild rose, yellow birch, hawthorn and hemlock are also used. All are native trees and shrubs. However, the only hooded warbler nest I ever found was in a thicket of nonnative Japanese barberry off Greenbrier Trail.

Here in Pennsylvania, first nesting attempts range from May 10 to June 11, and the second nesting from June 21 to July 19. Last summer on July 20, a hooded warbler distraction-displayed as I passed a thick understory of barberry, multiflora rose and blackberry, and I assumed a second nest was hidden within those prickly shrubs.

Hooded warbler on nest by USFWS

Hooded warbler on nest (USFWS – public domain)

The females incubate an average of four white eggs spotted with brown that look very much like those of brown-headed cowbirds. In northwestern Pennsylvania 62% of hooded warblers nests were parasitized by cowbirds, Stutchbury reported, possibly because cowbirds are attracted by chipping calls female hooded warblers make as they construct their nests. Usually cowbirds lay one or two eggs in a nest and remove one or more hooded warbler eggs at dawn before female hooded warblers arrive to lay their egg for the day.

After 12 days, the young hatch, and both parents feed them spiders and insects, the usual fare of hooded warblers, although only the females brood them.

At eight to nine days of age, the young fledge and can fly two to three days later. The parents divide up the fledglings and continue feeding them until they are five to six weeks old. But usually males take over the entire brood of fledglings if the females start second broods.

The males sing from the time they arrive until they leave for their wintering grounds in Central America. I’ve heard a male singing here as late as September 24, although peak migration time in Pennsylvania is from the fourth week in August to the second week in September.

Hooded warblers defend territories on their wintering grounds, but males prefer mature forests and females scrub, secondary forests and disturbed habitat, which is the first documented example of habitat segregation.

Male and Female hooded warbler by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1917

Hooded Warbler by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1917

Our son, Mark, who has lived off and on in Honduras over the years, has seen many wintering hooded warblers in shrubby areas and says they are always with Wilson’s warblers, a boreal breeding species that resembles a female hooded warbler except for the black cap of the male Wilson’s warbler.

Back in spring of 2010, Stutchbury attached tiny geolocator tags on the backs of five male hooded warblers to find out where they spend their winters. These tags record light levels and location information every two minutes and are now being used to track numerous songbird species.

A year later two of the five tagged hooded warblers returned to their territories in northwestern Pennsylvania, and Stutchbury and her team caught them in mist nets and analyzed the data. One male had flown south to the Florida panhandle, across the Gulf of Mexico and spent the winter in Nicaragua. In spring, he flew up to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Mississippi River Valley back to his exact same territory—altogether a 4,200 mile round trip.

When males return to their same 1.2 to 1.8 acre-territories, they use their long-term memory to identify nearby territories by the distinctive songs of the neighboring males. This minimizes the struggle for territory as they countersing with their neighbors and await the arrival of the females.

In the words of Samuel F. Rathbun, who studied the hooded warbler in west-central New York state early in the last century, “it is essentially a carefree song, musical, and often spiced with a little jauntiness, which in many ways perfectly reflects the actions of the bird.”

Hooded warbler by Paul Hurtado

Hooded warbler (Paul Hurtado – CC licence)