Prairie Warblers inhabit old pine plantations

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Prairie Carbler, in "pine barren" habitat
There are plenty of Prairie Warblers in our piney woods but don't look for these brightly marked yellowish warblers in grassy prairies. How this bird earned the name Prairie Warbler revolves around the pioneer American ornithologist Alexander Wilson who gave it its common name in 1810. The birds he examined came from an area then called a "prairie". However, that was the term then used to describe a "pine barrens". Such areas are characterized by poor acid soils and scrubby fields and forest dominated by pines.

Prairie Warblers are found throughout the eastern and south-central USA. One population, perhaps a subspecies, finds its home in the coastal mangrove forests in southern Florida. I find them mostly around 5-15 year old, thick pine plantations. Poor stands can have a good bit of scrubby oak in the pines.

It is rather strange that warblers are called warblers. Only males sing. Although the name implies that the birds are accomplished singers, nothing could be farther from the truth. Prairie Warblers are no exception to the rule. The song is a simple tzee tzee tzee, tzee on a rising scale and if you are hard of hearing, especially for high notes like me, it is almost impossible to hear them. According to reports I have read, there are actually two versions of the song, one sung to attract females and another to defend nesting territories.

While warblers are not songsters, many are very attractive. Some refer to them as jewels of the forest and Prairie Warblers are very striking in appearance.

The late Professor George Lowery provides one of the better descriptions of the Prairie Warbler. He notes that it is yellowish green above and yellow below. It has two bold black stripes on its yellow face. Heavy black streaks continue from the head down the sides of the neck and the flanks. There is a pair of yellowish wing bars on both wings. There is also considerable white in the outer tail feathers.

There are other yellowish warblers similar to Prairie Warblers but the only one found in our breeding areas is the Pine Warbler. The black face stripes and the habitat of wagging its tail separates the Prairie Warbler from the Pine Warbler.

Prairie Warblers have benefitted greatly from forest fires and forest management. Both activities ensure that there is plenty of favored habitat. In fact, as pine plantations age, Prairie Warbler populations will move from time to time within the same region seeking the 5 to 15 year old dense pine habitat they prefer.

Prairie Warblers show up in our region in April arriving from wintering grounds in the tropics. A bit of trivia involves the habit of female Prairie Warblers to eat the egg shells soon after their offspring hatch. The parents actively feed their young with all manner of insects and other invertebrates favoring caterpillars of various moths and butterflies. The fledglings are dull brownish yellow compared to their parents and can be confused with other warbler fledglings during fall migration. Some Prairie Warblers are found in our region in the winter but most are gone by the end of October.