- Subalpine Warbler
 - Subalpine Warbler (inornata)
 - Subalpine Warbler (inornata)
 - Subalpine Warbler (cantillans)

Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans Scientific name definitions

Raül Aymí, Gabriel Gargallo, David Christie, and Ernest Garcia
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated June 20, 2019

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Editor's Note: This is a shorter format account, originally published in HBW Alive. Please consider contributing your expertise to update and expand this account.


12 cm; 7–16·1 g (nominate), 8·9–12·6 g (albistriata). Small warbler with rather short and square-ended tail, and moderately pointed wings. Male nominate race breeding has head and upperparts bluish grey with faint buffish-brown tinge; tertials blackish with narrow and well-defined pale greyish-white fringes, rest of remiges blackish with pale whitish-grey to buffish-grey fringes; major upperwing-coverts greyish black with greyish fringes, broader and more diffuse on greater coverts; alula centred blackish grey and fringed whitish (fringe narrower on middle and, especially, larger feathers); tail blackish brown, outermost rectrix with rather well-demarcated whitish covering nearly whole of outer web and distal part of inner one, adjacent feather pair with whitish at tip and as wedge on inner web, next pair (rarely, also r3) with whitish limited to narrow area at tip; orangey red-brown below, except conspicuous white submoustachial stripe, whitish mid-belly and undertail-coverts; iris olive to bright orange-brown, orbital ring orange, eyering mostly pinkish orange; bill pale pinkish flesh, greyish-black culmen and tip; legs pale reddish flesh-orange. Male in non-breeding plumage is tinged brownish above, including on wing-coverts, with more buffish-brown tinge to fringes of remiges, and extensively washed whitish below, pale feather tips largely concealing orange-brown of underparts. Female breeding resembles non-breeding male, but has mostly greyish-brown head, browner wing, mantle and scapulars, is mostly pale buffish brown below, with whitish submoustachial stripe, belly and rear body, more orange-buff wash on throat, breast-side and flanks, eyering mostly white, iris and orbital ring usually duller than male’s; non-breeding female very similar, but still browner above and whitish and less deeply coloured below. Juvenile resembles non-breeding female, but decidedly buffier below and more uniformly greyish buff-brown above, dark grey-brown tail with pale tips and edges much reduced and sullied buffish brown, iris dark olive-brown, orbital ring dull yellowish brown; first-winter only marginally sexually dimorphic and mostly like non-breeding female, flight-feathers and bare parts largely as juvenile. Race inornata differs from nominate only in being paler and purer orange below; albistriata male has upperparts darker and purer grey, throat, breast and upper flanks reddish chestnut-brown and well demarcated from purer white rest of underparts, female is slightly greyer above and whiter below than other races; both sexes of iberiae differ from inornata in being less yellow-tinged above and below (difference obvious in series of skins) (1, 2).

Systematics History

Editor's Note: This article requires further editing work to merge existing content into the appropriate Subspecies sections. Please bear with us while this update takes place.

Until recently considered conspecific with S. subalpina (which see). Race inornata also proposed for species rank in course of separation of S. subalpina and description of iberiae (2, 1), but plumage differences relatively weak and call differences slight (3). Some authors propose that albistriata be treated as a full species, but evidence not conclusive. Has apparently hybridized with S. melanocephala (4). Four subspecies recognized.



Subalpine Warbler (cantillans) Sylvia cantillans cantillans Scientific name definitions

Sicily and C and S Italy (N to Umbria and Marche), locally in NC Italy (Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna); non-breeding presumably in W Sahel.


Subalpine Warbler (inornata) Sylvia cantillans inornata Scientific name definitions

Morocco to Tunisia and (?) nw Libya; winters Senegal to w Niger


Subalpine Warbler (albistriata) Sylvia cantillans albistriata Scientific name definitions

extreme NE Italy (Trieste) and S Slovenia, S along N Adriatic coast to Albania and E to S Bulgaria, Greece, Crete and W Turkey, once in SW Romania; non-breeding C and E Sahel (from about E Mali E to NW Sudan).


Editor's Note: Additional distribution information for this taxon can be found in the 'Subspecies' article above. In the future we will develop a range-wide distribution article.


Favours tall and dense heterogeneous maquis with sparse tree cover in dry Mediterranean areas, particularly maquis of holm oak (Quercus ilex) and those dominated by strawberry tree (Arbutus) and tree-heath (Erica); common also in young cork oak (Quercus suber) forest and in dense but treeless bushy areas. Frequents bushy formations dominated by brambles (Rubus fruticosus) along sunny ravines and valley bottoms. Prefers intermediate stages of post-wildfire succession, but can breed at high density in cork oak forest one year after burn (taking advantage of rapid foliage recovery). Breeds from sea-level to c. 1700 m in S Europe, to 2200 m in Morocco (Haut Atlas). On non-breeding grounds, prefers acacia (Acacia) savanna or bush, tamarisk (Tamarix) thickets along wadis and watercourses, and bushy areas at desert oases and desert fringes; also mangroves along coast and bushy areas on edges of reedbeds. The Senegal Delta mangroves support large numbers in winter (5).


Long-distance migrant; supposed sedentary nature of those at Beni Abbès (NW Algeria) requires confirmation. Leaves breeding grounds from mid-Jul to early Sept; autumn passage in breeding range until Oct (peak late Aug to mid-Sept), reaching non-breeding grounds in sub-Saharan Africa from mid-Aug, but not common until Nov; departure from wintering areas from Feb to early May, spring passage in Mediterranean Basin mostly mid Mar to mid May, males migrating a few days earlier than females; arrives on breeding grounds from late Feb (NW Africa), first half Mar (S Europe) and mid-Apr (far N of range). Migrants much more common in Cyprus and Israel during spring passage than in autumn, suggesting that E race (albistriata) undertakes loop migration; flocks of 50 frequently observed during spring passage in Cyprus. Vagrants recorded N to NW Europe, as far as Iceland; annual in Britain , where there are occasional influxes (e.g., c. 15 recorded in Apr–May 2004) and W to the Azores.

Diet and Foraging

Mostly small insects and their larvae; also berries and fruits, mainly outside breeding season and, particularly, before autumn migration (to help to increase fat deposition). Invertebrate food includes spiders (Araneae), mayflies (Ephemeroptera), crickets (Orthoptera), stick-insects (Phasmida), bugs (of families Cercopidae and Aphididae), lacewings (Neuroptera), moths and caterpillars (Lepidoptera), midges (Chironomidae), ants (of family Formicidae), beetles (Coleoptera) and ticks (Ixodidae). Plant material consists mostly of small berries, but also larger fruits such as those of Rubus, Ficus and Vitis; grass seeds and nectar taken occasionally, especially during spring migration. Young fed mostly with invertebrates, but fledglings and perhaps also nestlings may be fed with berries (e.g. Rhamnus ludovici-salvatoris) in very arid areas. Forages at medium height (c. 1·5–3 m above ground) on higher and outer parts of bushes and small trees, less frequently in higher tree canopies and in inner and lower parts of vegetation; forages on ground only rarely in breeding areas, but more frequently during migration and perhaps in non-breeding areas. During passage and at favourable feeding sites on non-breeding grounds can form flocks or loose aggregations of more than 50 individuals; otherwise largely singly or, less often, in twos.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

Song , from bush or in flight, less frequently from treetop or within cover, a rather long, chattering musical warble (often c. 3 seconds long), characteristically irregular in tempo, and consisting mostly of “tek” call-like notes and high-pitched whistles; very slightly more abrupt and hurried in race albistriata. Call a hard, dry “tek” or (race albistriata) a short disyllabic “tret”.


Season in most of range late Mar to late Jun, most clutches laid between mid Apr and mid May (peak late Apr and early May); broods reported early May to late Jun in NW Africa (inornata); in Europe normally double-brooded. Monogamous; solitary, territorial breeder. Song flight a rapid ascent to several metres, followed by slow fluttering bat-like descent while singing. Male builds unlined “cock nests”; breeding nest constructed by both sexes, a deep, robust cup of grasses, thin roots and leaves, lined with finer grasses, rootlets and hair, placed c. 30–130 cm above ground in low scrub, bush or small tree. Clutch mostly 3–5 eggs, mean 4·2 in Morocco, eggs laid at daily intervals; incubation by both sexes, period 11–12 days; both also feed chicks, nestling period c. 10–12 days; fledglings attended by both parents.

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Common to very common in most of its range; NW African population (race inornata) not well known, but appears to be reasonably secure. European population (including S. subalpina, prior to taxonomic separation of latter) was estimated at 1,400,000–3,200,000 breeding pairs, of which c. 100,000 in France (including S. subalpina), 1,100,000–2,300,000 in Spain, 10,000–100,000 in Portugal, 30,000–50,000 in Italy, at least 200,000 in Greece, 10,000–30,000 in Albania, 500–5000 in Bulgaria and 1000–10,000 in Turkey; densities in suitable habitats 2–12 pairs/10 ha. European populations in general rather stable during 1970–2000, locally increasing or expanding N in France (Massif Central), Andorra and Catalonia (NE Spain); range in Catalonia increased by c. 30% between c. 1980 and 2000; has also expanded N after colonizing Romania (since 1976) and S Switzerland (1996). Numbers of vagrants recorded in C & NW Europe have also grown steadily during recent decades, with, for example, the species being removed from the list of official rarities in the British Isles due to the increase in records. Common also on non-breeding grounds; several thousands reported in lakeside reedbeds in Mali, but densities decrease to 2–3 birds/km² in dry steppes of S Mauritania. Increased irrigation and tree-planting in Saharan oases may have favoured the use of these areas in recent times.

Distribution of the Subalpine Warbler
  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Subalpine Warbler

Recommended Citation

Aymí, R., G. Gargallo, D. A. Christie, and E. F. J. Garcia (2020). Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.subwar1.01