Yellow-Rumped Warblers: Meet the Butterbutts

Learn what a yellow-rumped warbler looks like, how to identify them, what they eat, when they migrate, and why they're nicknamed butterbutts.

yellow rumped warbler Phylicia Clemens 10Courtesy Phylicia Clemens
The myrtle form of the yellow-rumped warbler is found in the Eastern and Northern United States.

Identify Yellow-Rumped Warblers: Myrtle and Audubon

North America boasts more than 50 species of warblers; this one is probably the most abundant. Their population may be as high as 130 million. The male yellow-rumped warbler has a trademark lemon-colored rump patch (hence the nickname butterbutts), yellow shoulders and a yellow cap. Females have duller colors. There are four forms, all with distinct appearances. Look for myrtles in the East and far North and Audubon’s in the West. The other two forms live in Mexico and Guatemala. On the myrtles, note the contrast of the brown cheek patch, white throat and striped chest. Audubon’s have a yellow throat.

Discover more of the most common birds found in North America.

yellow rumped warblerCourtesy Sandy Krassinger
The yellow-rumped warbler gets its nickname, butterbutt, from the bright yellow patch above its tail feathers.

What Do Yellow-Rumped Warblers Eat?

More adaptable than other warblers, yellow-rumps eat berries and bugs. Yellow-rumped warblers also sometimes visit feeders to eat black oil sunflower seed, suet or peanut butter.

This warbler owes its success to myrtle berries (Myrtus), including bayberry and other native shrubs. Unlike nearly every other bird that eats berries—bluebirds, thrushes, robins, waxwings and more —yellow-rumps, once called myrtle warblers, can digest the waxy coating, transforming it into fat that helps them survive the cold. They also eat the berries of juniper, poison ivy, poison oak and Virginia creeper. Tree swallows, the only other birds capable of turning myrtle wax into vital fat, often join the warblers at myrtles in their coastal wintering areas. If you’re near a bayberry or other myrtle shrub, listen for the yellow-rumped warbler call—a signature sharp chip.

yellow rumped warbler Dale ChristnerCourtesy Dale Christner
Look for the Audubon’s form of a yellow-rumped warbler in Western states.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler Migration

This warbler, which winters widely across the United States, can thrive in cold weather without migrating to the tropics. One of the earliest migrants, yellow-rumped warblers arrive in Southern states in late fall. They fly North in early spring, when dozens or more of these butterbutts can be found together in one area. Females migrate later than males.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler Nesting

These warblers breed and nest in northern coniferous forests. The white-throated myrtle nests from New England to Alaska, and the yellow-throated Audubon’s nests throughout the forests and mountains of the West.

Check out proven tips to attract nesting birds.

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Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.
Sheryl DeVore
Sheryl DeVore is a science, nature, health and social Issues writer, editor, educator and wild birds expert. She has been watching birds, plants, insects and other natural wonders as well as writing stories about education, social issues, art, music and nature for more than 25 years. With an education, science, and journalism background, she enjoys sharing her knowledge and inspiration from nature.