Prothonotary Warblers, the 'swamp candles' of our flooded forests

Jarod Hitchings and others in Central Illinois are working to aid populations of these golden denizens of Illinois swamps

Jarod Hitchings was at a wedding in Missouri when he saw a Prothonotary Warbler for the first time. 

“I had no idea they were so close in our neighborhood,” he says. “That’s what lured me in to do some research.”

Hitchings went back to his home near Springfield, Ill., and found a clip online about an effort to study the Prothonotary Warbler population in Illinois; since 1994, hundreds of milk cartons have been used in a southern Illinois warbler study by the Illinois Natural History Survey. The milk or juice cartons can help protect the warblers from nest predation by raccoons and from parasitism by cowbirds. That’s critical for a species that’s declined by 42 percent since 1966. 

“The thought of this bird being in decline, it just hit me as something I can do,” Hitchings says, “something I can involve my young family in to help species in need.” 

Hitchings started looking for habitat near him that might harbor Prothonotary Warblers. It turns out, one ideal bottomland forest was just down the road from him, at Springfield’s Riverside Park. 

Hitchings’ devotion to the brilliant warblers has been extraordinary. On April 15 of last year, he installed his first juice carton nest box at Riverside with the permission of the park district. That first one was a successful nest. Ultimately, Hitchings, his family and a few co-workers installed nearly 60 carton nest boxes, resulting in three successful nests. Putting in the boxes and monitoring them requires donning hip waders and sweltering through dense vegetation on hot, humid days.  

Yet, the effort has expanded to 270-plus cartons this year, stretching from Allerton Park near Monticello to Beaver Dam State Park in Carlinville.

“This is something we can do to give back,” Hitchings says. “We can inspire others to recycle cartons and put them in local flooded forests or along river ways. 

Prothonotary Warblers are named for ancient Byzantine clerks who wore golden robes when they performed their duties. They’re a legendary bird among birdwatchers, a sort of grail bird of spring migration, for their pure saffron coloration and sweet song. I saw my first warbler on a long-ago canoe trip on the Piedmont in Virginia.

“This bird is such a beautiful swamp candle,” says Hitchings. “When you see that burst of gold, you can’t help but smile and look at in reverence. It’s just a true river warbler.” 

Watch Jarod Hitchings talk about Prothonotary Warblers and glimpse video of a Prothonotary I encountered in Woodford County recently, in this 2-minute clip I put together:

Join a virtual conversation and get the t-shirt!

Join me and Jarod Hitchings for a virtual chat about Prothonotary Warblers this Thursday from 5-5:45 p.m., via Zoom. Register for the conversation here.


I was inspired to make a t-shirt in the color of prothonotary robes (of course)! You may buy one here for $15, any proceeds I’ll put toward closed captioning for the new “Monty and Rose” film.


Lost cause

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of a night I spent lost in the Canadian wilderness. It was a canoeing and fishing trip that went off-course—way off-course—when we were left in the dark without food, water or shelter. As I learned, even the most careful of wilderness plans can go awry. I’m planning to feature an account of this excellent misadventure in the Monday, May 31, newsletter. 

Update on Montrose pathway improvements

As shared here previously, the Chicago Park District recently received a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to install an ADA-accessible pathway at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. This grant supports another step in the implementation of the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary Master Plan (2015), which was developed through a stakeholder-involved process, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. There is detail on the plan here.

Trail construction will begin after June 1, 2021, and will result in an 8-foot wide, 1/3-mile long loop that will travel near the areas known to many as the Magic Hedge and the Clump.

TWiB Notes

I couldn’t agree more with the above tweet from The Birdist. It’s been a glorious migration and especially so after going a year without spring migration at Montrose Point……The big news last week was the first springtime glimpse of one of Monty and Rose’s 2020 offspring, near Toledo, Ohio. It’s a thrill for many of us…..Speaking of Toledo, Global Big Day again set a record for a single day with the most checklists submitted on eBird worldwide. Cook County was No. 1 in checklists submitted but slipped behind Lucas County, Ohio, home to Toledo and legendary birding sites nearby, in terms of species count (201 to 192)…..Audubon has a nice piece here on two warblers—Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat—that anyone can find….. “Picturing the Prairie” features paintings by artist Philip Juras at the Chicago Botanic Garden, now through Sept. 12. The exhibition celebrates the rich aesthetics, ecology, and history of Illinois prairies.