Bird Watcher's General Store

Yellow-rumped Warblers Are Here In The Winter

Dear Bird Folks,

You have always told us that goldfinches are strict vegetarians, so I was surprised to look out my window and see several finches eating from my suet feeder. (See attached photo.) I guess things have changed.

Ė Tom, Barnstable, MA

No, they havenít, Tom,

Things havenít changed at all. Goldfinches still find eating meat disgusting, and well they should. The barbaric birds in your photo (which is very nice, by the way) arenít goldfinches. They are Yellow-rumped Warblers. Yellow-rumped Warblers are attractive birds, but they have dark souls. Theyíll eat meat and not think twice about it. As punishment for this bad dietary choice they have been saddled with the embarrassing name of yellow-rumped. That will teach them. Nothing wants a name with ďrumpĒ in it. Rumpelstiltskin certainly didnít. He was so self-conscious about his name he wouldnít tell the millerís daughter what it was. She had to guess. Then thereís rump roast. Do people still eat that? Meat is gross enough, but how desperate does someone have to be to eat a rump? Okay, Iím done talking about rumps.

Warblers are small, typically colorful songbirds that fly to North America in the spring to breed, but leave at the end of the summer. They migrate back to Central and South America to avoid our fabulous winters and because their favorite foods will soon be in short supply. For the most part, warblers are insect eaters. Nothing satisfies their hunger like swallowing some lovely plant lice or bark beetles. Yellow-rumped Warblers are an exception to this rule. Unlike their warbler cousins, yellow-rumps enjoy a more balanced diet. They switch to fruit as soon as those delicious bark beetles become hard to find. Their flexible diet allows yellow-rumps to remain in colder climates throughout the winter. When the bugs are gone Yellow-rumped Warblers easily switch to eating juniper, Virginia creeper or honeysuckle berries. But their most important food source is bayberries. Yellow-rumps are one of the few birds that are willing to ingest the waxy, fragrant berries. This not only gives yellow-rumps an uncontested food supply, but it allows them to have the best-smelling poop in the bird word.

In the winter, Yellow-rumped Warblers are fairly dull birds. They are mostly brown, with wing bars and a small patch of yellow on each side. This yellow patch, plus the wing bars and the overall drabness, could trick some people (and by some people, I mean you, Tom) into thinking they are seeing goldfinches, which are also dull in the winter. But these warblers have one thing that goldfinches donít have: their namesake yellow rumps. No matter the time of year, Yellow-rumped Warblers always have their yellow rumps. The yellow maybe hidden when their wings are closed, but the minute they open their wings it becomes quite clear how they earned their name.

In January itís easy to see how folks would confuse dull goldfinches with the equally dull Yellow-rumped Warblers, but there is no chance of mistaking these two birds when spring arrives. In the breeding season the drab, brown feathers of the yellow-rumps molt into rich gray. (I know ďrich grayĒ sounds like an oxymoron, but look at a picture and youíll see.) In addition, the yellow on their sides becomes more pronounced, their throats become bright white and the birds gain handsome black masks, making them look like the Lone Ranger. (Question: Didnít the Lone Ranger have a sidekick? Wasnít he always with Tonto? Then why is he called the ďLoneĒ Ranger? Just wondering.)

Yellow-rumped Warblers arenít typical Cape Cod feeder birds. To begin with, they arenít here in the summer. They spend June, July and August on their breeding grounds, which extends from New England (just not Cape Cod) throughout most of Canada and Alaska. They return in September while we still have plenty of bugs for them to eat. When frost creates a scarcity of insects the birds turn to the aforementioned fruit and berries. At this point, the warblers are still happily eating on their own and have little use for our feeders, but that can change when winterís snow and ice make it harder for them to forage. The day after our most recent snowstorm a steady stream of customers reported seeing yellow-rumps on their feeders. Some folks knew exactly which birds they were seeing, while others needed our help to identify them, and still others just called them goldfinches. (Gee, I wonder who that was.)

How do we attract Yellow-rump Warblers to our yards? As you mentioned in your question, suet is a good choice. The birds seem to be less interested in seeds, although Iíve had several reports of yellow-rumps eating on peanut feeders. Offering water is also a good way to attract them. This past week Iíve had a number of yellow-rumps drinking from my heated birdbath. (I guess they needed water to wash down the nasty suet.)

I know Iíve teased you about confusing Yellow-rumped Warblers with goldfinches, Tom, but you arenít alone. At first glance, the two birds do look somewhat similar. The best way to know for sure if you are seeing a warbler or a finch is to look for the yellow spot at the base of the tail. If you see a yellow rump, you know itís not a finch. You could also try sniffing the birdís poop to see if it smells like bayberries, but I think Iíd look for the yellow spot first.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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