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Cape May Warbler
Setophaga tigrina

The common name for this bird refers to the locality where Alexander Wilson first described the species, Cape May, New Jersey. Interestingly, it was not recorded again in Cape May for more than 100 years. This bird breeds in the boreal forest of Canada and the northern United States, where its abundance is largely tied to its favorite food, the spruce budworms (Choristoneura fumiferana). It has a larger that average clutch size for a wood-warbler enabling it to take advantage of years when there is a surplus of food. During the winter the Cape May Warbler is confined almost exclusively to islands of the West Indies where it collects nectar using its unique curled, semitubular tongue. The Palm Warbler is a fairly common migrant in East Tennessee; in Middle and West Tennessee it is uncommon in spring and rare in fall. The Cape May Warbler is usually present in the state from late April to mid-May and then again from mid-September to mid-October.

Description: The male breeding plumage of this small songbird is striking: the breast is yellow with thin black streaks; it has chestnut-colored cheek-patches on the head, a yellow rump, and a large white wing-patch. Females and juveniles are less boldly colored.
Length: 5.5"
Wingspan: 8"
Weight: 0.36 oz

Voice: The song is a simple repetition of 4 to 7 very high thin seet seet seet seet notes.

Similar Species:

  • Yellow-rumped Warbler in the fall has streaks on its sides only, not on the central breast and belly, a larger yellow rump patch, and black streaks on the back.
  • Palm Warbler is yellow under the tail, not white, wags its tail, and has a streaked back.

Habitat: During migration, found in woodland and woodland edges.

Diet: Insects, especially spruce budworms, during the breeding season; nectar and insects in winter.

Nesting and reproduction: The Palm Warbler has not been documented nesting in Tennessee.

Status in Tennessee: Fairly common migrant in East Tennessee and a very rare winter visitor. In Middle and West Tennessee it is uncommon during spring migration, rare in fall, and very rare in winter.

Dynamic map of Cape May Warbler eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The Cape May Warbler is a specialist on the defoliating spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana). Its populations expand during outbreaks reaching high densities and then may disappear from an area between outbreaks.
  • This warbler and the Tennessee Warbler are spruce budworm specialists and attempts to control outbreaks with certain combinations of pesticides cause steep declines in these birds.
  • The first nest of the Cape May Warbler was not discovered until the early 1900s. Due to the remote areas where this bird breeds and the difficulty in finding nests, many aspects of its breeding behavior are still unknown.
  • The tongue of the Cape May Warbler is unique among warblers. It is curled and semitubular, and is used to collect nectar during winter.

Best places to see in Tennessee: In mixed-species foraging flocks in woodland habitats across the state during spring and fall migrations, especially in East Tennessee.

For more information:


Baltz, M. E., and S. C. Latta. 1998. Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina). The Birds of North America, No. 332 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

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

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