Every morning I hear the call of a yellowthroat coming from the tall prairie plants about twenty feet from my patio. The common yellowthroat is in the wood warbler family. It is a bird that is heard more than it is seen. It is only four and a half inches long, a third smaller than the house sparrow, and weighs 3/8ths of an ounce. But for a small bird it has a large voice. Its cheerful song is something like “Wichity-wicity-wicity-wich”. Frequently I am able to get a quick glimpse of him if he is singing perched on top of a tall plant. I have only seen the female once this spring- she is harder to locate because she seldom calls.
The male yellowthroat is a handsome bird and his looks are unmistakable. He has a bright yellow chin, throat, and breast. His back and top of the wings are an olive-brown color. The most distinguishing feature is a black face mask that is outlined with thin white feathers. Some ornithologists say that a larger facemask is more attractive to females. The female coloration is paler. She does not have the facemask, but has a white eye ring. This species of bird prefers a wet habitat along streams, marshes, and waterways with dense brushy vegetation nearby. Yellowthroats have been reported nesting in every Iowa county and are widely distributed across the eastern two-thirds of the United States.
Yellowthroats are very shy birds; they creep from one leaf shadow to another staying low to the ground. They are rarely seen in high parts of a tree. Some ornithologists have reported that the bird can be called in closer by making a “pshh” sound or a kissing sound. That trick has not worked for me.
The yellowthroats arrive in Iowa in late April. The males establish their territory and begin singing to attract females. When a male finds a female he will impress her by flying twenty-five feet in the air giving a “tching-tching” call and then he will do a parachute-like fall to the ground landing in front of her.
When the courting is over they begin to raise a family. The female will build a cup shaped nest two feet above the ground in small shrubs or dense weeds. She will weave soft grasses and small twigs and then line the inside with a very soft material like dandelion down, cottonwood seeds, or animal hair.
She will lay three to five cream colored eggs with dark speckles in the nest and they will hatch after twelve days of incubation. The parents feed the babies a high protein and fat diet of insects, spiders, and caterpillars. The young birds fledge in eight to ten days. Adults have been observed to occasionally raise a second brood and they will re-nest if there is a nesting failure. The male shares equally with the feeding of the young. If there is a predator near the nest the male yellowthroat will lure it away by using the broken wing trick.
Their nests are parasitized about 20 percent of the time by cowbirds. The cowbird egg will be incubated and the baby cow bird will be fed by the yellowthroats. The cowbird grows faster and it will get most of the food and eventually push the baby yellow throats out of the nest.
The common yellowthroat seems to be doing well, no population changes have been reported and it is not on any special concern list. The major problem facing the yellowthroat is loss of its winter habitat in Central American, Columbia, and Venezuela, as the land in those countries is being cleared for more agriculture. The next time you are in the woods or by a stream listen carefully for a “Wichity-wichity-wichity-wich” bird song and then look carefully- you might get to see the common yellowthroat.