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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Yellow is a common color for birds around the globe

Minnesota’s species of birds, all 423 or so, come in all sorts of colors. And the color yellow shows up a great deal of the time. Wings, rumps, heads, eyes, bills, backs, breasts, bellies, and even feet and legs are splashed yellow on many species of birds.

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A yellow-headed blackbird perches on a cattail. Contributed

Minnesota’s species of birds, all 423 or so, come in all sorts of colors. And the color yellow shows up a great deal of the time. Wings, rumps, heads, eyes, bills, backs, breasts, bellies, and even feet and legs are splashed yellow on many species of birds.

Some birds have yellow as part of their common names that usually describe a specific body part. For example, common yellowthroat, yellow-headed blackbird, greater and lesser yellowlegs, yellow-billed loon, yellow-throated vireo, yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, yellow-throated warbler and yellow-eyed junco.

And there’s more. Yellow-billed magpie, yellow-crowned night heron, yellow-breasted chat, yellow-billed cuckoo, yellow wagtail, yellow-green warbler, and yellow-footed gull are species of birds that are colored yellow somewhere on their anatomy.

There are some “yellow” birds, however, that aren’t very yellow at all. The “yellow” rail is a stretch, as is the “yellow” bellied sapsucker. On the other hand, there are some of our yellow avian friends that should be named, in part, as such. Instead of American goldfinch, perhaps American yellow finch would be a better-suited name. Or, yellow-rumped tanager instead of western tanager; yellow-masked warbler for hooded warbler; and yellow-headed warbler in lieu of hermit warbler.


A yellow-bellied sapsucker inserts its bill into a hole in a maple tree to probe for sap. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Yet, for all that yellow seen throughout the bird world, only a few can be called yellow because, well, they really are mostly yellow. Here in Minnesota, only two species come to mind: the American goldfinch and the yellow warbler. But even these two species of birds, though clearly yellow in color, are not completely yellow.

The American goldfinch is so named based upon the breeding plumage of the male bird. The females, juveniles, and non-breeding males are not very yellow at all. Even so, the bright yellow adult male goldfinch in full breeding plumage has a fair amount of black, too. Its forehead and much of its wings and tail are colored black.

Goldfinches are common visitors to backyard bird feeders. I find their docile manner and gregarious nature refreshing, not to mention the joy of observing the dazzling displays of bright yellows on our feeders.

Another yellow bird that might at times be mistakenly called a “yellow canary” is the yellow warbler. This bird is our only “all-yellow” warbler. Both sexes, unlike American goldfinches, are colored mostly yellow, but the male yellow warbler has red streaks on its underparts and has an olive crown. Females, on the other hand, lack the distinctive reddish belly streaks.

Yellow warblers are insectivores and occupy a variety of habitats, but are typically observed around wetlands and dense deciduous woodlands near riparian areas. Males arrive in early spring and begin establishing breeding territories by singing their wonderfully soft and melodious “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so very sweet” song.

The color yellow also shows up in some species of woodpeckers, namely the northern flicker, sometimes called the yellow-shafted flicker, and the yellow-bellied woodpecker, although its yellowish belly isn’t readily evident at first glance. And there are many other local birds with yellow in their plumage or other parts of their anatomy.

Yellow-colored legs, for example, occur in many species of water birds (think greater yellowlegs and lesser yellowlegs for example). And think of some birds’ wings, breasts, rumps, heads and crowns, beaks and even eyes—yellow-rumped warbler, western meadowlarks and eastern meadowlarks, yellow-headed blackbird, yellow-billed magpie and the yellow eyes of great horned owls.


Indeed, yellow is certainly a common color for birds around the globe. It is undeniably rampant amongst the many species of wood warblers. All the same, not all birds called yellow are yellow, not all yellow birds have yellow in their name, and not all yellow birds are canaries. Regardless, yellow or not, the many and varied avian colors are everywhere as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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