Bird Watcher's General Store

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The Common Yellowthroat

Dear Bird Folks,

Do you remember me? I’m the one who called you from my backyard last week. I held out the phone so you could hear and identify a mystery birdcall for me, and you actually did it. Now, I’d like to know how I could perhaps see this bird, which I think you called it a “yellow throat warbler.” Does this bird come to feeders or to birdhouses? Hearing it and not seeing it is starting to bug me.

– Toni, Bourne, MA


Sure, Toni,

I remember you and your phone call. It was wonderful to hear a nice bird singing to me over the phone. Usually when I get a call it’s some supplier or one of my kids looking for money. Suppliers aren’t so bad because as soon as I give them some money they stop asking for it. My kids, on the other hand, never stop asking. They are like living with a houseful of IRS agents. Very sticky IRS agents.

Before we talk about your bird, Toni, let’s first get the name right. It’s not called a “yellow throat warbler,” but a “Common Yellowthroat.” The Common Yellowthroat is indeed a warbler, but it doesn’t have the word “warbler” as part of its common name. The reason for the clarification is because there is a totally different bird called a “Yellow-throated Warbler.” I know I’m being picky, but if we don’t get the names straight, feelings get hurt and there is nothing sadder than seeing a warbler with hurt feelings.

Of the hundred or so different wood warblers living in the Americas, only a few will come to our birdhouses or feeders, and the Common Yellowthroat is not one of those few. It has no use whatsoever, for anything we have to offer, and I’m sure of it this time. Last week I mentioned that catbirds don’t come to bird feeders and I got a wave of notes and calls from people who have catbirds visiting their feeders. Okay, fine, I should have qualified the catbird story, but I’m telling you right now, you will not be seeing any Common Yellowthroats eating at your feeders. If you do, I’ll buy you a gallon of gasoline. Note: I’m talking about regular gas here, not premium. Let’s not get crazy.

The name of the Common Yellowthroat fits this bird perfectly. It does have a bright yellow throat and it is very common. It is found in every province of Canada and in every single US state, except, of course, Hawaii. Yellowthroats hate pineapple. But, the two main features of this warbler are the distinctive black mask of the male and his diagnostic “witchity, witchity, witchity” song that can be heard even when the bird is nowhere to be seen. While the songs of many birds can be confusingly similar, the loud witchity, witchity, witchity of the Common Yellowthroat, not only makes this bird unique, it makes it identifiable from over fifty miles away, via the telephone.

With such a big voice you would think that we are talking about a fairly large bird, but at 5″ long the Common Yellowthroat is anything but large. It’s a chickadee-sized bird, but unlike the confident and conspicuous chickadee, the yellowthroat rarely comes out in the open. This little bird stays low and hidden, living in thickets, reeds, and marshes. If your yard borders a weedy field, bog, or wetlands there’s a good chance that a yellowthroat family or two will be your summertime neighbors. Conversely, you are less likely to even hear one if you are surrounded by those boring groomed lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs. This bird likes crowded, unkempt tangles, which explains why so many Common Yellowthroats are always trying to nest in my wife’s clothes closet.

Since the Common Yellowthroat likes to stay hidden, hearing the males’ signature “witchity, witchity, witchity” song will alert us to his presents. Of course, the male isn’t singing for our benefit; it’s to attract a mate. Once he attracts a female, the couple will remain in the same territory throughout the breeding season. Even though the two birds remain together, studies show that the female occasionally sneaks off and has a fling or two with neighboring males. As a result of this finding, researchers now claim that if you are looking for the male yellowthroat all you have to do is listen for his song, but if you want to find the female you should look for cigarette smoke.

I was happy to listen to your mystery bird over the phone, Toni. Identifying a call via the phone is a good idea. It’s much better than when people triy to recreate a bird song with their own words. Just yesterday a very nice lady described a song to me that she claimed was being sung in her yard. According to her, and I’m not making this up, a bird was singing: “Flies in the buttermilk, shoo fly, shoo.” That’s correct, a lady has a bird in her yard that is singing: “Flies in the buttermilk, shoo fly, shoo.” I didn’t know what to tell her. I’ve never heard a bird sing anything like that before. The only thought I had was perhaps Mother Goose and the Muffin Man were building a nest nearby and it was one of them who was singing. I don’t think the lady bought it.