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Louisiana Waterthrush
Parkesia motacilla

The Louisiana Waterthrush is a woodland bird found near flowing streams in mature forests. Though it looks more like a small thrush or a sparrow than a warbler, its constant tail bobbing and loud ringing song make it an easy bird to identify. This is one of the earliest migrants to arrive in Tennessee and one of the first to depart in the fall. They can be found breeding across the state, but their local abundance is determined by the availability of forested streams. The Louisiana Waterthrush's breeding range extends across most of the eastern United States, and in winter they are found from Mexico to northwestern South America and the Caribbean.

In summer 2010, the American Ornithologists' Union changed the genus of Louisiana Waterthrush from Seiurus to Parkesia.

Description: The males and females are brown above with a distinct white eye-stripe that extends to the neck. Below they are whitish with distinct brown streaks on the breast and belly. The throat is typically unstreaked. Breeding and non-breeding plumage is the same.
Length: 6"
Wingspan: 9"
Weight: 0.7 oz.

Voice: The song consists of 2 to 4 clear loud ringing down-slurred notes, ending with a complex jumbled of phrases that trail off at the end. The call note is a loud, strong chink. Similar to Swainson's Warbler.

Similar Species:

  • Northern Waterthrushes migrate through Tennessee, and may share the same habitat. They also bob their tails, but have streaks on the throat, and an off-white or buff colored eye-stripe that is narrower and does not extend as far onto the neck.
  • Ovenbirds are more olive on the back, whiter below, have a white eye-ring, and an orange and black crown.
  • The song of the Swainson's Warbler is similar, however the Swainson's song is more bold in tone and has three loud, clear, and distinct ending notes.

Habitat: Forested streams in hardwood forests.

Diet: Insects, many arthropods, earthworms, aquatic insects, snails, and occasionally small frogs or fish.

Nesting and reproduction: Territories are established almost immediately upon arriving in the spring with the male singing constantly from perches above a stream. Peak egg laying occurs in mid-April, and typically only one brood is produced. Louisiana Waterthrushes are common hosts for Brown-headed Cowbirds.

Clutch Size: 5 eggs, with a range of 3 to 6.

Incubation: Females incubate the eggs for 12-14 days.

Fledging: The young leave the nest at about 10 days old, and are fed by both adults.

Nest: The nest is made by both the male and the female in a small hollow under overhanging roots or other vegetation, on a steep bank within a couple of yards of a stream. Occasionally the nest is built in a rock crevice. Wet leaves, grass, pine needles, hair, rootlets, and moss are used to form a nest cup.

Status in Tennessee: The Louisiana Waterthrush is a fairly common breeding bird and migrant across Tennessee. It arrives in mid-March and departs by mid-September. Populations appear stable, but Breeding Bird Survey methods may be inadequate to detect population trends for this species. In many eastern states it is a species of conservation concern due to habitat loss.

Dynamic map of Louisiana Waterthrush eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Louisiana Waterthrushes defend linear territories along streams and confine their activities to this narrow corridor. Territory lengths have been recorded from 1,230 to nearly 4,000 feet long. What determines territory length has not been studied.

Obsolete English Names: large-billed waterthrush, aquatic wood-wagtail

Best places to see in Tennessee: Streams with flowing water and mature forest statewide, especially in Middle and East Tennessee. Radnor Lake State Park is an excellent place to see them in spring.

For more information:


Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Robinson, W. D. 1995. Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla), The Birds of North America, No. 151 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.