Black-and-white Warbler

Mniotilta varia

  • Version: 2.0 — Published June 12, 2014
  • John C. Kricher

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the Black-and-white Warbler in North and Miiddle America.

This species also winters in northwestern South America. See text for details.

Breeding male Black-and-white Warbler; Mackinac Co., MI; 9 May.

One of the most distinctive wood-warblers in North America, the Black-and-white Warbler is a common summer visitor throughout most of the central and eastern United States and much of Canada.  Field marks include black-and white striped crown and back, extensive dark side-streaks, contrasting white wing bars that join wide, white tertial edgings, and black spotting on undertail coverts.  Adult breeding (Definitive Alternate plumage) males show bold, dark streaks, variable black cheeks and lores, and uneven black throat. The following is a link to this photographer's Flickr stream:, May 09, 2013; photographer William Bouton

Breeding male Black-and-white Warbler; Mackinac Co., MI; 9 May.

Note adult breeding (Definitive Alternate plumage) male is boldly streaked overall, with black cheeks and lores, and uneven black throat. The following is a link to this photographer's Flickr stream: , May 09, 2013; photographer William Bouton

The Black-and-white Warbler is one of the most distinctive wood-warblers (Parulinae), yet its ecology has been surprisingly little studied. It is the only member of the genus Mniotilta (which means “moss-plucking,” a reference to the species' bark-foraging behavior). Its unique, sharply defined black-and-white striped plumage, evident in all seasons, accounts for its specific name, varia (meaning “variegated”).

This species has the unusual habit of methodically foraging on tree trunks and thick limbs, creeping along like a nuthatch and using its slightly decurved bill to probe among bark fibers—a behavior that has given it the common name of black-and-white creeping warbler, or simply black and white creeper. (It has also been called pied creeper, creeping warbler, striped warbler, whitepoll warbler, and scrannel.) Although it is the only North American wood-warbler that regularly forages on bark, it also routinely forages among foliage in a manner typical of most other foliage-gleaning wood-warblers. It tends to feed at mid-heights but may be observed anywhere from the canopy to the forest floor.

The Black-and-white Warbler is a common summer resident throughout most of the eastern and central United States and much of Canada and is a long-distance migrant. Its extensive wintering range includes most of Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean islands (West Indies and Bahamas), and northern South America, and during migration it is regularly recorded as a rarity along the Pacific Coast (a few winter in California) and as a vagrant in northern Europe, especially Britain and Ireland. Unlike many other neotropical migrants, this species does not show evidence of a general population decline, though it is clearly sensitive to forest fragmentation.

This is one of the earliest wood-warblers to return to its breeding grounds in spring. It inhabits open woodland, second growth, and mature forest, strongly favoring deciduous forest but also occurring in mixed deciduous and coniferous woods. It does not breed as commonly in spruce-fir forests but may be increasing in some boreal regions. Males arrive first on the breeding grounds, sing and defend territories, drive away conspecifics, and actively pursue females. Females are the principal nest-builders, constructing nests of dry leaves and grasses that are normally concealed on the ground at the base of a tree or fallen log. The prevalent song is easy to learn, a repetitive, high-pitched weesee.

On its wintering grounds this species is often found in disturbed habitats, forest edge, plantations, parks, and gardens, but it tends to be most abundant in interior forest. Individuals are territorial but nonetheless commonly join mixed foraging flocks that include neotropical resident species as well as other migrants.

Recommended Citation

Kricher, J. C. (2014). Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.