Prairie Warbler

Photo of a prairie warbler perched on a red cedar sprig
Scientific Name
Setophaga discolor (formerly Dendroica discolor)
Parulidae (wood-warblers) in the order Passeriformes

Prairie warbler adult upperparts are olive, with reddish streaking on the back. The face is yellow, with a black eye line and a black line on the lower edge of the cheek. There are two faint, yellowish-white wing bars and two white spots in the tail. Underparts are bright yellow, with black streaks along the sides and flanks. Undertail feathers are white. Song is a thin, rising zee-zee-zee-zee-zee-zee. Call is a tchup.

Similar species: Pine warblers have white wing bars, lack prominent streaks on the sides, and do not bob their tails so busily; also, they are larger. Magnolia warblers have dark, grayish upperparts, white wingbars, and are usually only seen in Missouri in spring and fall. If you’re birding by ear, some songs of the northern parula can sound like that of the prairie warbler, but the parula’s voice is buzzier, and it sings a final, sharp note at the end of its phrases.


Length: 4¾ inches.

Where To Find
Prairie Warbler Distribution Map

Occurs mostly in the Ozarks of southern Missouri; absent from the Bootheel lowlands. It does not live in northern Missouri and is less common in southwestern Missouri — the regions where most of Missouri’s prairies occur.

Prairie warblers live in dry, shrubby glades and old fields with scattered shrubs and eastern red cedars — not in true prairies. In 1810, Alexander Wilson, whom many consider the "father of American ornithology," found this species living in a barrens habitat near Bowling Green, Kentucky. A barrens is a mosaic of prairie-like grasslands interspersed with groves of stunted oaks and hickories on shallow, rocky soils. Apparently confusing this landscape with true tallgrass prairie, he gave the bird its common name.

Prairie warblers forage for insects amid leaves and branches near the ground and in low bushes, continually bobbing their tails.

As a summer resident, uncommon in the Ozarks, casual in other parts of southern Missouri. As a migrant, accidental in northwest Missouri. Genus name: This and nearly 30 other wood-warblers used to be in the genus Dendroica, but evidence from genetic research showed that the genus could not logically be kept separate from genus Setophaga. Today, all the Dendroica warblers are now in genus Setophaga.

Life Cycle

Present in Missouri from mid-April through early September. They are present year-round in parts of Florida; they overwinter in the West Indies. Cup nests are positioned in low trees and shrubs and are built from various plant fibers and lined with softer materials such a mosses and feathers. Clutches comprise 2–5 eggs, which are incubated for about 12 days. Usually within 15–90 seconds of one of their young hatching, mother prairie warblers rapidly eat the eggshell. This may have several benefits. It can help replenish mineral nutrients in the mother’s body, help the young exit the egg, tidy the nest, and/or make the nest less conspicuous to predators. Prairie warblers can live to be at least 7 years old.

In 1874, Elliott Coues described the “curious” voice of the prairie warbler as “much like a mouse complaining of the tooth ache.” Before sound recordings, sonograms, and waveforms were available, ornithologists used colorful descriptions, musical notation, and phrases made of similar-sounding words or nonsense syllables to describe the acoustic communications of birds.

Like many birds, this species is slowly declining, mainly because of loss of habitat, especially in its breeding territories. Restoring glade and woodland habitats helps this species and many others. Also, the prairie warbler is one of the many species whose breeding success is hampered by nest-parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds.

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Similar Species
About Birds in Missouri

About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.