Tuesday, July 23, 2024

An orange-crowned warbler pauses in East Watertown on Dec. 16. (Photo: Becca Evans)

Although this small yellowish songbird is called an orange-crowned warbler, you will almost never see the orange crown unless the bird is wet or it is agitated and raises its head feathers. At other times, those feathers cover the orange patch at the top of the head.

Birders have been looking for the orange patch in the wild for many years. According to Horace W. Wright in 1917, “The orange patch is always concealed by the tips of the feathers …  The crown spot is never discernable while the bird is at large … I have yet to see the bird display its crown patch, even when chasing the female in March and April, and I am pretty sure I have seen over 500 specimens.”

This orange-crowned warbler pays a visit to Danehy Park in January. (Photo: Tom Murray)

These warblers are hardy birds, who can sometimes be spied in our area – urban and suburban –because although they do not breed in Massachusetts, they sometimes migrate through in late fall or winter. Unlike most other birds, whose migration is triggered by the amount of daylight, orange-crowned warbles migrate south only when food become scarce. According to Wright: 

My records of the orange-crowned warbler in the Boston region during a period of eight years ending with January 1916, indicate that in recent years one or more individuals of the species are not unlikely to be found here by an observer who is much afield in the late autumn or early winter … The vicinity of Boston, however, appears to mark the northern limit of the appearance of the species in the east in the fall and winter, as the absence of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont records indicates.

An orange-crowned warbler rests in a bush at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, on Dec. 21, 2023. (Photo: Karl Niemi)

Orange-crowned warblers usually stay low to the ground in bushes or small trees looking for insects such as beetles, ants, spiders, caterpillars and flies in warm weather and berries or sap in winter. From bird feeders, they will eat suet or peanut butter. You might see these birds flitting from branch to branch as they forage for food. In warm weather, they pierce the base of flowers to get at the nectar or snatch insects from buds or the underside of leaves. They root through leaf litter and poke their pointed beaks into bark and moss looking for elusive insects. William Brewster observed these birds in the 1800s:

On October 2, 1876, while collecting at Concord, Mass., I shot a female of this species in fine autumnal plumage. When first observed it was gleaning industriously among some low, scattered birches … Its small size and dark colors first drew my attention to it, and led me to suspect its identity. It proved upon dissection to be a bird of the year.

An orange-crowned warbler flies from perch to perch in December. (Photo: Karl Niemi)

When reading from ornithologists and birders from the 1800s and early 1900s, the birds are almost always killed without a second thought. It is easy to understand why so many bird populations in North America declined during this period; people thought bird populations were almost limitless and did not hesitate to kill what they encountered, even if they were admirers.

Yellowish or olive colored, darker above than below, this orange-crowned warbler was spotted in Lowell in January. (Photo: Tom Murray)

In the early spring, orange-crowned warblers arrive before females at their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and the western United States. They prefer dense, shrubby areas near forests. The male sings to establish a territory, usually returning to an area he defended successfully the year before. The female builds a nest on the ground in a small hole or low in a bush. Although the male does not help build the nest, he accompanies the female as she works. 

This bird in North Cambridge really does have an orange crown, but feathers cover it most of the time. (Photo: Richard George)

The female lays four or five eggs, white with reddish-brown spots. She keeps them warm for about two weeks until the eggs hatch. Both parents feed larvae to the young. After another two weeks, the hatchlings leave the nest, although they are still poor flyers. Both parents continue to feed the young after they have left the nest.

Orange-crowned warblers have visited Fresh Pond in the winter for many years. According to Wright: 

On January 10, 1916, I found an orange-crowned warbler in close proximity to the Fresh Pond reservation. A damp snow was falling fast at the time the bird was seen, but later in the day the precipitation became rain. Directly upon leaving the electric car at the parkway, the warbler appeared in a low hedge of Berberis thunbergia [Japanese barberry], bordering the front yards of the house standing in a row on the drive. It was presently clearly identified. The bird moved along in advance of me down through almost the entire length of the hedge row, 400 or more feet, passing on by short flights, while I successively advanced from stops made for repeated observations, The sharp “chip” call was given.

It proved to be the only bird abroad on this occasion, for I passed on to the park, and in a half-hour’s time no other bird gave evidence of its presence by flight or call … On January 26 this bird, presumably the same, was seen by Mrs. B. W. Parker and Miss Alice M. Paul on the west side of the reservation upon a bank covered with young white pines and shrubs. The warbler was observed on the ground, as is not uncommonly the case … Only one period of snow-covered ground had occurred up to that time.

The orange-crowned warbler is a remarkable and often overlooked winter bird. With its unassuming charm, this little bird compels us to notice and appreciate the winter world that surrounds us.


Seen nearby

Jackie Anderson spotted this ash-throated flycatcher in Danehy Park on Dec. 3.


Have you taken photos of our urban wild things? Send your images to Cambridge Day, and we may use them as part of a future feature. Include the photographer’s name, date and the general location where the photo was taken as well as any other relevant information.

Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.