Warblers are popular songbirds, but they are also one of the biggest challenges to attract to the backyard because they don't typically eat seed (won't visit feeders), and most are not cavity-nesting species (won't use bird houses). Warblers are typically shy and solitary, but with perseverance and the right approach to meeting these birds' needs, backyard birders can attract warblers successfully.
Why We Love Warblers
Warblers are popular target birds for many birders, and there are hundreds of warbler species throughout the world, including the Parulidae bird family in North and South America as well as several other bird families in other parts of the world, including Acrocephalidae, Cettiidae and Sylviidae. No matter which family different warblers are part of, however, they often share characteristics that make them popular among birders, such as…
- Colorful plumage, often with distinct markings or bright patches
- Active, energetic behavior, including acrobatic foraging techniques
- Insectivorous diets that provide natural pest control in the backyard
- Vocal variety that includes trills, whistles, warbles and other notes
Warblers are prestigious birds for birders to see, and attracting them to the backyard is the ultimate in successful backyard birding.
How to Attract Warblers
As with any bird species, the key to attracting warblers is to meet their survival needs for food, water, shelter and nesting sites.
While it can be more difficult to meet warblers' specific needs, it is not impossible to do so.
- Food: Warblers are primarily insectivorous, and taking steps to make a yard insect-friendly will also make it warbler-friendly. Providing sufficient foliage and flowers and minimizing or eliminating insecticide use is essential to warblers' food supply. Warblers may also sample fruit, so berry bushes for birds can be another natural food source. While these birds don't frequently visit feeders, they may be tempted by jelly, oranges, suet and peanut butter, as well as larger nectar feeders with convenient perches.
- Water: All birds need water, and moving water is especially attractive to warblers. Bird bath fountains, bubblers and drippers can all create splashing noises warblers will notice as well as reflections that may attract their attention. Placing bird baths in secluded areas such as thickets or using ground bird baths near dense foliage can help warblers feel more secure to visit the water source, though the area should be carefully protected from potential predators.
- Shelter: Most warblers prefer to stay in sheltered areas and avoid open spaces, though males may use high, open perches to sing when claiming territory. Dense plantings of deciduous trees, shrubs and groundcovers will create a warbler-friendly habitat, and landscaping should be designed in layers for birds to have multiple foraging areas. Thicket-like plantings are preferable, and landscaping should provide corridors through the yard for birds to feel secure, rather than isolated pockets of shelter. Using native plants will be especially attractive for warblers, and pruning should be minimized to keep the landscaping lush and dense.
- Nesting Sites: While some warblers will use bird houses – Lucy's warblers, prothonotary warblers and a few others – most prefer to nest in the same types of trees and shrubs that they use for shelter. If the shelter in the yard is exceptional, the nesting habitat will also be appropriate for warblers. Providing suitable nesting materials, such as grass clippings, moss, lichen, twigs and pine needles, can also encourage warblers to nest nearby.
More Tips for Attracting Warblers
Even the most warbler-friendly yard may not have a conspicuous population of these popular birds. If your yard meets warblers' needs for food, water, shelter and nesting sites but you haven't yet witnessed these birds as regular visitors, consider…
- Taking additional steps to discourage feral cats and ensure other predators are not using the yard as a hunting ground. Warblers can be very wary, and even the rare appearance of a predator can discourage them from visiting. For the best results, choose warbler-friendly landscaping to discourage cats at the same time, making every plant in the yard do double duty to both attract and protect warblers.
- Providing quiet, isolated parts of the yard for warblers to take advantage of. Ironically, the more active a bird-friendly yard is, the less likely it may be to attract warblers because the activity of other birds may keep wary warblers away. If warbler-friendly landscaping is kept separate from more active feeding areas, warblers will feel more comfortable.
- Studying local warbler species and adjusting the yard to meet their specific needs. Warblers are a diverse group of birds, and what is attractive to one type of warbler may not be suitable for another warbler species. Visit local birding hotspots and note what regional plant types and foods the birds favor, and add those plants and foods to your yard.
- Watching carefully for visiting warblers. It may seem like warblers are not yet visiting your yard, but because these birds can be shy and do not usually stay in flocks, it is easy to miss or overlook their backyard visits and they could be more frequent guests than you realize. Installing a wildlife camera can be a fun way to keep a closer eye on feeders and note if any warblers are visiting.
The most important step in attracting warblers is to simply be patient. While these birds may be challenging to attract, when they finally arrive, their visits will be well worth the effort.
Photo – Cape May Warbler © Madeleine McDonald