© Terry & Joanne Johnson
IUCN Near Threatened; estimated population 400,000.
Once common in shrubby young forest within forested landscapes of the Midwest and East. Now restricted to two isolated populations in Upper Midwest and Appalachians. Winters in Central and northern South America. Habitat loss and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers are major concerns.
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Golden-winged Warbler © Gerrit Vyn
The Golden-winged Warbler is a sharply declining songbird that lives in shrubby, young forest habitats in the Great Lakes and Appalachian Mountains regions. They have one of the smallest populations of any songbird not on the Endangered Species List. An estimated 400,000 breeding adults remain—a drop of 66 percent since the 1960s. In the Appalachian Mountains the situation is even worse: the regional population has fallen by 98 percent.
Golden-winged Warbler conservation has been a main focus of the Cornell Lab's Conservation Science program for more than a decade. We've learned that the main reasons for the decline include habitat loss on the breeding and wintering grounds (Central and northern South America) and hybridization with the closely related Blue-winged Warbler.
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The Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Plan, published in 2013 by a coalition of researchers including the Cornell Lab, identifies three goals for recovering Golden-winged Warbler populations:
- Enlarge total Golden-winged Warbler breeding habitat by 1 million acres
- Resuscitate the Appalachian Mountains population by doubling the number of breeding adults
- Grow the rangewide population 50 percent by 2050
Causes of Decline
- Breeding-ground habitat loss. Historically, natural disturbances, such as wildfires and flooding from beaver dams, created a patchwork of shrubby openings amid a largely forested landscape. But today early successional habitats are declining due to forest regeneration, changes in agricultural and forestry practices, and increased human development.
- Wintering-ground habitat loss. Similarly, the open woodlands where Golden-winged Warblers live during winter in Central and northern South America are disappearing, as forests there are cleared for palm oil, cattle grazing, and sun-grown coffee. True shade coffee, grown in forest setting, provides important winter habitat for golden-wings.
- Hybridization with Blue-winged Warbler. Golden-winged and Blue-winged warblers often interbreed and form hybrids, including distinctive forms known as “Brewster’s” and “Lawrence’s” warblers. Shifting geographic ranges have brought Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers into more frequent contact, facilitating hybridization (see a map of the overlap), which contributes to the decline of Golden-winged Warblers. In the Appalachian Mountains, the two species have traditionally been separated by elevation, with golden-wings on the ridge tops and blue-wings in the valleys, but climate change has permitted blue-wings to move up the slopes where they compete and hybridize.
Current vs. Former Range
The Golden-winged Warbler's range once ran continuously from the Midwest to the East. But it has now receded into two isolated subpopulations, one centered in the Great Lakes and the other along the Appalachian Mountains. The range contraction was documented through extensive field surveys as part of the Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project and other surveys.
Download the full Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Plan or see our page on Resources for Landowners and Land Managers for guidelines about specific regions and habitats.