Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler by Tom Finnie
© Tom Finnie
Protonotaria citrea
Beginners in bird study often look with disfavor on the name of this bird; they find it difficult to spell, to pronounce, and to understand. Actually, however, the title Prothonotary (pronounced pro-thon'-o-ta-ry) possesses the same high degree of distinction and appropriateness that we recognize in the name of the Northern Cardinal. For centuries of ecclesiastical history, the prothonotary, who is legal advisor to the pope, has worn yellow vestments, as the cardinals have worn red. When the Creoles of Louisiana found in the swamps of our state a bird that wore a similarly resplendent golden surplice, they had the inspiration to call it the "prothonotary" -- or, at least, so the story goes. At any rate, the Prothonotary Warbler has ever since occupied its fitting position in the world of southern swamp birds as a properly sanctified associate of the Northern Cardinal. How colorless and unimaginative in comparison is the name Golden Swamp Warbler, which some people would like to use in place of Prothonotary! It tells us nothing we do not already know the moment we see the bird, and, while it is perhaps desirable that many names should be of this purely descriptive sort, it is certainly refreshing to find an occasional one that widens our horizons by providing a challenge to our intellectual curiosity.
The species is everywhere in Louisiana an abundant denizen of swampy places and is, therefore, a bird with which nearly every fisherman of our swamp lakes and bayous is familiar. Although it sometimes comes up into our gardens to nest in bird boxes or gourds, it never strays far from water and normally builds its nest in a hole in a stump standing in water. The male of the species is unquestionably one of our most attractive birds. Its golden yellow head and yellow underparts contrast with its yellowish green back and bluish wings and tail. The outer tail feathers have a considerable amount of white that is often flashed when the bird is excited. The female, though somewhat duller in plumage, closely resembles the male. The Blue-winged Warbler is descriptively similar, but its much smaller bill, narrow black line through the eye, and white wing bars are all points that it does not share with the Prothonotary Warbler.
The song of the Prothonotary is a loud, ringing peet, tweet, tweet, tweet that reverberates through the swamps from the time of its arrival in mid-March until late summer. Southward migration begins in September, but the bird's departure from the state is not normally completed until the end of October. An occasional individual sometimes remains until well into November, but the only winter record is that of one seen by Marshall and Grace Eyster at Lafayette on December 25, 1950. The three to eight beautiful rose-tinted eggs are liberally blotched with chestnut-brown, intermingled with blotches of gray or lavender.
--George H. Lowery, Jr., 1974, Louisiana Birds

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