Spring migration brings many beautiful birds into our region, but none are as emblematic of the changing seasons as the wood warblers. Among the wood warblers there are few as boldly colored and as striking as the Prothonotary Warbler.
A prothonotary warbler is bright yellow, with the yellow appearing to intensify around its head almost to the point of becoming orange. It is a bird of contrasts. Its jet black eye and bill appear ready to pop off as if they do not belong on such a bright head. Their song is also distinctive in its simplicity: a loud single note repeated about five or six times per phrase. Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! (Examples: here and here) Prothonotary warblers are not subtle, either by sight or sound.
Unlike most other warblers, prothonotaries build their nests in cavities rather than hanging a small cup nest from a branch. They may use natural cavities or nest boxes; many times they take over cavities previously used by chickadees since the two species have similar space needs. Prothonotaries show a strong preference for cavities directly over water. The two requirements limit these warblers to flooded bottomland forests. Despite the habitat limitations, their population appears to be stable, and may even be expanding northward.
This warbler's name derives from a title for papal officials in the Roman Catholic Church, protonotarius apostolicus. Like the name for the Northern Cardinal, also derived from an ecclesiastical title, this name was probably first applied by French settlers in Louisiana. A protonotarius is responsible for registering official acts and canonizations. The connection with the warbler is that protonotarii may wear golden yellow ceremonial vestments. (A sixteenth-century portrait of a protonotarius is here; I cannot quite tell whether he is dressed in yellow or red.) Some U.S. states, such as Pennsylvania, retain the title "prothonotary" to designate clerks in the civil court system.
Crossposted at the Blue Ridge Gazette.