The Prothonotary Warbler: You Sure About That?


It’s the secret etymological handshake of the North American birding community: Do you know where the Prothonotary Warbler gets its name?

Knowing smiles all around; of course we do! The name alludes to the golden vestments worn by lawyers in the Roman Catholic Church, right? That’s what I’ve heard and read for all my birding life, and even Wikipedia agrees, so it must be true.



In birding as in all else, common knowledge is usually common — but only sometimes knowledge. Often enough, the stories we tell each other are contrived well after the fact, explanations cleverly thunk up to rationalize a set of circumstances we just don’t understand. And precisely that seems to be the case with this warbler story, a neat and often repeated solution to the problem of a name whose real origins we’ll likely never know.

Suspicion rises immediately when we see that even the most authoritative of modern accounts of this name differ significantly. Gotch, as good a first stop as any, tells us that Protonotaria 

refers to the Chief Secretary of the Chancery at Rome, who wears yellow robes.

The almost unfailingly reliable Jobling moves things to the Eastern Empire, deriving the genus name from the

late L[atin] protonotarius protonotary, a Byzantine court notary who wore golden yellow robes.

The popular literature may not be as trustworthy, but it does tend to codify received birderly wisdom. Diana Wells, in her 100 Birds, informs us that the bird’s

common name comes from its yellow plumage, the color of robes worn by papal clerks, or prothonotaries, when they met to confirm beatifications, canonizations, or other weighty matters.

Rome. Byzantium. The papal curia. Three different places, three different eras, three different bureaucratic hierarchies. Somebody’s making something up.

None of the three authors quoted offers any citation to an original source, so we have to do the work ourselves.


The name Protonotaria entered Linnaean taxonomy by way of Gmelin, who in his edition of the Systema naturae called the bird Motacilla Protonotarius, following the vernacular names given in Buffon, Latham, and Pennant. Says the last, in 1785: the Prothonotary Warbler

inhabits Louisiana. Called there le Protonotaire; but the reason has not reached us.

“The reason has not reached us.” Science was just as innocent twenty years later, when in 1807 Vieillot wrote that the name

“prothonotary” that one has retained for this bird is that imposed on it by the inhabitants of Louisiana; but no author has provided any etymology for this unusual designation.

Neither Wilson nor Audubon could offer any speculation about the origin of the name, and Bonaparte too seems to have passed over it in silence. Not even Cabanis, whose footnotes reveal such a fondness for etymologies, ventures a guess. Likewise, Baird, in elevating the name Protonotaria to generic rank, says nothing of its origins.

The reason for all this silence is simple: even the most learned, even the best-informed ornithologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not know why the French-speaking inhabitants of the lower Mississippi had christened their “golden bird of the wooded swamps” Prothonotary. Elliott Coues, the greatest ornithological lexicographer who ever lived, could do no more than quote Pennant in the second edition of his Check List; twenty years later, the etymology offered in the final, definitive edition of the Key ends with a simple question: “Why?”

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Neither is there any attempt at an explanation in Coues’s entry for the species in the Century Dictionary; it simply follows on the definitions of “prothonotary,” without etymological comment.

I hope that my point is obvious: if those who received and described the first specimens, and those who knew the bird in life in the earliest years of American ornithology, and those whose mastery of ornithological bibliography, lexicography, and etymology was unrivaled — if none of those men could draw a connection between the cavity-nesting warbler of “wonderful orange cadmium hue” and the berobed functionaries of some exotic court, then the connection must be a recent discovery or, more likely, a recent fiction. Who’s responsible?

As far as I’ve been able to determine without devoting entire days to the search, the earliest printed attestation of the story is in Bagg and Eliot’s 1937 Birds of the Connecticut Valley, later quoted in Bent:

We understand that Protonotarius is the title of papal officials whose robes are bright yellow….

This “we understand” is a bit hard to parse: are Bagg and Eliot adding something original to the discussion, or are they conceding the likelihood of what others have told them? In any event, those authors — writing more than a century and a half after Pennant first recorded the name — provide no authority for the “fact” that the papal lawyers wore yellow, a notion that I cannot find confirmed, either, in the standard ecclesiastic reference; another site (reliability unknown) suggests that at least today the vestments of the prothonotary are … purple.

Perhaps it is best at this point to go back to Pennant’s source, the Francophone inhabitants of eighteenth-century Louisiana. It doesn’t seem very probable that the Cajun residents of swamp and bayou would have known much about the sartorial traditions of the Vatican, and indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the office of Prothonotary “had almost entirely disappeared” by the late eighteenth century (it was revived in 1838). Could the Louisianans have known the word in a different context?

It would please me no end to think that there is a legal historian reading this right now. In French-speaking America — in Canada and Louisiana — the notarial system was well developed and important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

An institution that would be called on to play a critical role in the economic and political life of the future state, the notariat was transferred to Louisiana from France at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Indeed, it was with the royal decree of 1717 establishing the first civil government in Louisiana that the powers and functions of the French notary were transplanted in the new colony. From that point on, all parties involved in a real estate transaction were obliged to record the contract in the presence of a notary.

In Quebec, and presumably in Louisiana, too, notaries, who became “an essential component in Louisiana’s civil legal system,” were required to deposit copies of all notarized documents and transactions in a central depot — overseen by a protonotary. The protonotaire would thus have been a significant and well-known figure in the Francophone community.

I suspect that this was the home-grown Prothonotary who gave the name of his office to a bird, not golden-clad monsignors, Roman clerks, Byzantine officials, or “the chief clerk of the English court system.”

It’s harder to say what the bird and the legal official had in common, but Robert Ridgway, in the 1905 re-issue of Baird’s History, adds an interesting note: he says that the species is not at all “noisy and vociferous, as its name would seem to imply.”

Like rural busybodies the world over, Louisiana’s protonotaires were no doubt self-important buttonholers, given to saying the same thing over and over just to hear themselves talk. And there is no bird anywhere whose song is more monotonous than the tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet of a Prothonotary Warbler, holding endlessly forth from the depths of the hot swamp like the small-town functionary from his store-front office — the man who, I suspect, gave his name to the bird.




Categories : Birdwords, Information



Great job on this, Rick. And thanks for the Jobling link… awesome!


Thanks Rick having completed my Golden Eagle Survey’s, then sitting with wildlife biologist’s to discuss managing Burrowing Owls here in northern california I thought I might get bored. Then I read your blog on the Prothonotary Warbler. Its just what I needed to peak my interesting for the day. Crazy wonderful.


What an interesting and scholarly article!!


Great piece, Rick. I thought you (and I) had abandoned all hope of uncovering this mystery right up to that last paragraph!


Tremendous amount of research here, Rick. Fascinating article too. At the start, I was wondering if there would be a French or Francophone explanation — glad you figured it out :)


Great work. Of course my dictionary says as much and offers the Byzantine Court as the original place a chief clerk was called a Protonotary. From Oxford

prothonotary |pr???än??ter?; ?pr????n?t?r?|
variant spelling of protonotary .
protonotary |pr??tän??ter?; ?pr?t??n?t?r?| (also prothonotary)
noun ( pl. -taries) chiefly historical
a chief clerk in some courts of law, originally in the Byzantine court.
ORIGIN late Middle English : via medieval Latin from late Greek pr?tonotarios, from pr?tos ‘first’ + notarios ‘notary.’


Prothonotories date back in the English Court to at least the time of Edward II, so the 14th Century

“The English Reports are extant, in a regular series, from the reign of
King Edward the Second, Anno 1307, inclusive; and from his time to
that of Henry the Eighth, were taken by the Prothonotaries, or Chief Scribes
of the Court, at the expence of the Crown, and published annually, whence
they are known under the denomination of the Year Books. King James
the First, at the instance of Lord Bacon, (Pat. 15, Jac. 1, p. 18. 17 Rym.
26), appointed two Reporters, with a handsome stipend for this purpose.
Yet that wise institution was soon neglected, and from the reign of Henry
the Eighth to the present time, this task has been executed by many
private and contemporary hands. Blac. Com. v. 1, p. 72.
By 3rd Vic., c. 2, Provinl·ial Parliament; the Law Society of Upper
Canada appoint to the office of Reporter of Queen’s Bench, Upper Canada,
with a salary of £150. “


Very interesting! I’d always complacently believed the story about the yellow robes.

The Oxford English Dictionary says, “prothonotary warbler n. [perhaps punningly after CARDINAL n. (see sense 4 at that entry); it apparently does not refer to the robes of the Prothonotaries Apostolic] a North American wood warbler, Protonotarius citrea (family Parulidae), which has a deep yellow head, breast, and underparts, a green back, and blue-grey wings.”

I’d find it surprising for this bird to be named after its uninteresting song instead of its spectacular plumage.

By the way, dictionaries differ about which syllable is accented. “ProTHONatary” is the only way I remember hearing it, the few times I’ve heard it. (We don’t see a lot of them in New Mexico.)

One more mystery, which may be beyond the scope of this blog, is where the “h” came from. The OED says it had already shown up in Latin.


One of those days Rick. I apparently missed the most salient point of your great post, that a bureaucrat likely named the bird for himself. I need to get more sleep at night.


Aspiration is pretty common, or at least commonly reflected orthographically, in late Latin.


Yes, I wish the OED had said more. That “apparently” tells me that the author of the etymology, whoever it was, had a source, a source s/he leaves unidentified.



Very interesting piece. I must admit to always having disliked the silly name Prothonotary Warbler (while loving the bird, even its song), much preferring Golden Swamp Warbler–because the bird IS A GOLDEN SWAMP WARBLER! In the early morning light it is (in part) a beautiful golden yellow, and it lives in swamps! Case closed! In any case, it is slightly reassuring to learn that this American bird’s silly name may at least have a quasi-American origin and not be an obscure, misguided reference to Medieval Italy or some other even more exotic or unrelated place. Cheers.


[…] an alternative theory as to why the Prothonotary Warbler is called the Prothonotary Warbler. Click through to unlearn what you already thought you knew and have your mind blown. (Yeah, that might be a bit hyperbolic but […]


Incredible well done, Rick. Keeps me going as I struggle with some of the bird ID’s in Mexico.


There were secular officials of the court in Louisiana called “Prothonotaires”. I found a document from the “Louisiana – Missouri Territory” listing all the court officials from the territory for the US President and including at least one ‘prothonotary’. The territory was only purchased from the French in 1803 and this document was dated 1803-1806. The full title was ‘Prothonotary and Clerk of Sessions’. If you want to go ecclesial, you run into problems, since there are no references I can find to golden robes. Currently ecclesial prothonotaries wear purple and black robes, including a cape which could only be a reference to wing color in the warbler, not the color of the body and the head. Perhaps an earlier iteration of prothonotary vestments included something golden-colored, but I couldn’t find any evidence of this in my quick search. However, to think that ecclesial officials called prothonotaries are limited to the Vatican or Byzantium is fallacious. Prothonotaries are clergy trained in Latin and Canon Law, and capable of drawing up official Church documents. Therefore, many dioceses have prothonotaries working for them. Probably Louisiana under the French included both secular and ecclesial officials bearing the name ‘Prothonotaire’.


Wow — something I had always taken as gospel…


Fozzy Bear: “Myth! Myth!”

Miss Piggy: “Yeth?”


[…] the yellow robes worn by lawyers of the Catholic Church or a Protonotaria. But Rick Wright over at Birding New Jersey and the World makes an excellent argument for a different origin for the name. The Prothonotary Warbler was […]



The Kickapoo Valley Reserve (Vernon County, WI) has recently added the Prothonotary Warbler to our bird list. With this addition, I became interested in the Prothonotary meaning.
I read the Yellow robe reference from All About Birds and took it as “gospel”, but was intrigued by the papal connection (having been through 12 yrs of catholic schools).
Thus, a little more searching led me onto your blog.
An excellent story you tell.
I will reference your post in a small piece (300 words) I am writing for our newsletter.

And for all that it is worth……after I read your blog, I shared your findings with my girlfriend. The next morning, she then came upon a passage from Les Miserables (Victor Hugo, 1862) mentioning prothonotaries wearing purple and red. Again, nothing about yellow.
til next time………


Ben, can you zap me a copy of that newsletter piece? Thanks–


[…] To learn more on how the bird got its name, click here. […]

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