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Natural food and water are key to luring warblers

Wilson's Warbler
A Wilson’s Warbler visits a bird bath in Temecula, California. Photo by Mary Welty

In the 37 years I’ve lived along a major migration route, I’ve attracted about half a dozen kinds of warblers to my suet, jelly, and orange feeders. The visits have been few and far between and only during severe cold spells during spring migration. In other words, bird feeders are not the best way to attract warblers, at least not directly.

Although warblers only rarely visit feeders, a regular procession of them passes through my yard every spring and again from mid-July through early October. My yard is hardly unique: warblers migrate through, or at least over, just about every backyard in America on their way from the northern forests of Canada, Alaska, and other northern states down to the southern U.S. and on to the tropics. The warblers in my yard aren’t merely flying overhead, though. A great many stop to feed, drink, and rest.

Locally native trees and shrubs are a critical factor. In spring, leaves open and the first caterpillars hatch out right when warblers are on the move, fueling their journeys on this abundant prey. As summer progresses into early fall, fruiting trees and shrubs provide sweet meals for Tennessee, Cape May, and a few other warbler species, and the fruits also attract a smorgasbord of insects for a wider variety. Pesticides destroy this essential insect food and can be directly toxic to warblers as well.

Warblers don’t live by food alone — water is also essential. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a warbler in my standard bird baths, but they frequent ground-level bird baths. Mine looks like a small bubbling pool and is set near a stand of raspberries and small trees. The tiny birds come and go quickly and secretively, so I only notice them when I’m paying attention, but in the two years since I bought that bird bath, I’ve seen over a dozen warbler species drinking and/or bathing at it. After they’ve finished bathing, warblers usually sit in a nearby perch for several minutes preening, so when I sit quietly near the bird bath, I can watch them at leisure.


If your yard has natural food and water, warblers still might not notice without effective advertising. Fortunately, your neighborhood chickadees offer that service absolutely free. Warblers that hatched out in the north woods must migrate through thousands of miles of unfamiliar terrain to their tropical wintering range, but just about anywhere they go on this continent, a familiar dee-dee-dee reassures them that those chickadees will welcome them into their flock, lead them to the best food and water resources, and warn them of potential dangers.

The friendlier your yard is for chickadees, the more warblers they’ll attract, so indirectly, a good feeding station does invite warblers. To add warblers to your yard list during migration, scan your trees and shrubs whenever chickadees arrive. Sometimes you may be rewarded with a glimpse, or a full-on look, at one of these tropical beauties. Just remember to thank your chickadees — good advertising pays.



This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of BirdWatching. 

Originally Published

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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