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Golden-winged Warbler

Vermivora chrysoptera ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

A boldly marked warbler with a color pattern all its own, Golden-winged Warblers are slim, silvery gray birds with golden flashes on the head and wings. They breed in wet, shrubby tangles of the Upper Midwest and Appalachians, and spend winters in open woodlands and shade-coffee plantations. They have suffered severe population declines in the last half-century. They often hybridize with Blue-winged Warblers, producing a range of distinctive forms.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.1 in
13 cm
Weight
0.3–0.4 oz
8–11 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than a Black-capped Chickadee
Other Names
  • Paruline a ailes dorees (French)
  • Verdin alidorado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Golden-winged Warblers have suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird species in the past 45 years, but the Cornell Lab and partners in the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group have a conservation plan to stop the decline and grow the population 50% by the year 2050.
  • Minnesota has the highest remaining density of Golden-winged Warblers, with about half the global population.
  • Recent work with radio-transmitters has expanded our knowledge of Golden-winged Warbler habitat. The birds breed in shrubby, tangled thickets and other “early successional” habitats. But after the chicks fledge, the families move to mature forest habitats to continue raising their young.
  • Golden-winged Warblers often hybridize with the closely related Blue-winged Warbler. The Blue-winged Warbler has been expanding its range, and hybridization has been one element in the sharp decline of Golden-winged Warblers.
  • Hybrids tend to develop into one of two distinctive plumages, which early naturalists at first thought were separate species: "Brewster's Warbler” (which looks like a Blue-winged Warbler with a white chest), and "Lawrence's Warbler" (which looks like an all-yellow Golden-winged Warbler).
  • Hybrids do not sing intermediate songs but sing either normal Blue-winged Warbler or Golden-winged Warbler songs. Some birds sing both. Occasionally pure-looking parental types sing the "wrong" song.
  • Golden-winged parents may use trickery to protect their young from predators. Adults feeding nestlings have been observed repeatedly carrying food down other plant stems away from the next, possibly as a decoy, when they detected humans nearby.
  • The oldest known Golden-winged Warbler was at least 7 years old when it was caught and released at a banding station in Minnesota.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Golden-winged Warblers breed in tangled, shrubby habitats such as regenerating clearcuts, wet thickets, tamarack bogs, and aspen or willow stands. They tend to occur in wetland habitats more often than the closely related (and competitive) Blue-winged Warbler. Recent radio-tracking studies have discovered that Golden-winged Warblers move into mature forests immediately after fledging. This means that mosaics of shrubby, open areas (for nesting) and mature forest habitats (which offer cover for fledglings from like predators like hawks) are important landscape features. Historically periodic natural disturbances would create this patchy habitat—wildfires or flooding from beaver dams created a patchwork of shrubby openings amid a largely forested landscape. The early 20th century was good to Golden-winged Warblers, as settlers cleared forest openings for settlement and farming. But as the century progressed, many of those cleared areas grew back into forests, and humans prevented natural disturbances from opening up new pockets of nesting areas. Since the 1960s, Golden-winged Warbler habitat has decreased by an estimated 22 percent in the Great Lakes region and 43 percent in the northern Appalachians. On their wintering grounds, Golden-winged Warblers live in semiopen woodlands, as well as bird-friendly coffee farms under a forest canopy.

Food


Insects

Food items include caterpillars, moths and other insects, and spiders. Leafroller caterpillars appear to be an important food source. Golden-winged Warblers feed among the foliage by probing with their sharp bills into rolled-up leaves to find hidden prey. They only rarely catch insects on the wing.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.9 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.6 in
1.1–1.4 cm
Incubation Period
10–12 days
Nestling Period
8–9 days
Egg Description
Pale pink or pale cream, with fine streaks or small blotches
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and mostly naked; juvenile flight feathers begin to emerge on sixth day.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest, usually on the ground, over the course of 1–3 days. She often places the nest at the base of a plant such as goldenrod or blackberry, using the a tall, thick plant stem as a support (adults often land on this when arriving at the nest). She makes a base from up to 30 leaves and then adds grapevine or arrowwood bark and other long strips of plant material. Finished nests measure about 3.5 to 6 inches across and 1 to 2.5 inches deep. Females are very sensitive to disturbance and may abandon nests even after the first eggs have been laid.

Nest Placement

Ground

Females probably select the nest site, which is typically on the ground in a grassy opening or along the shaded edge of a field near a forest border. The nest is typically well concealed by overhead grasses and leafy material.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Golden-winged Warblers often forage among brushy and shrubby areas, where they hop along branches, carefully inspecting the leaves for prey, and sometimes dangling off the edges of branches like a chickadee. Male golden-wings are extremely bold and vocal during the 3 to 4 weeks at the start of their breeding season, prone to prolonged and exuberant bouts of singing. They also engage in a variety of postures and behavior in order to demarcate their territory, including chasing and flying past rival males, spreading their tails in face-offs, and sometimes actually physically fighting. Males also chase after females during courtship, raise their crowns and flick their tails when approaching a potential mate, and perform flight displays with slow, deep wingbeats. But after territories are established and mates are selected, they become very secretive during nesting and raising young. Golden-wing males are mostly monogamous, though there are a few reports of them having multiple mates.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Near Threatened

Golden-winged Warblers have declined sharply and now have one of the smallest populations of any bird not on the endangered species list. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates a decline of 2.6 percent per year between 1966 and 2010—amounting to an overall decline of 76 percent. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 410,000, with 84 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 16 percent breeding in Canada, and 2 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are on the 2010 Watch List. They are also listed as a Tri-National Concern species. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the species under consideration for listing as an endangered species. As numbers have fallen, the species’ range has also shifted northwest. The breeding range is now largely split into two distinct regions, with 95% of the population in the Upper Great Lakes (mostly Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba) and the other 5% in the Appalachians from New York to Georgia. Minnesota now has the highest remaining density of Golden-winged Warblers, with about half the global population. The Appalachian mountains population has nearly been extirpated (down 98 percent). Causes of the bird’s decline include habitat loss and hybridization and competition with the closely related Blue-winged Warbler (in which the Golden-winged tends to lose out). Wetland habitats seem to be a stronghold for Golden-winged Warblers, but invasive Phragmites is making the birds’ preferred tussock-sedge nesting sites harder to find. Clearcutting, burning, and grazing can improve habitat for Golden-winged Warblers, although new evidence points to the importance of keeping mature forest nearby. Loss of open forests on the wintering grounds is also a problem, and bird-friendly or shade-grown coffee and cacao plantations can help retain habitat for the species. The Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, a consortium including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and 38 other universities, agencies, and conservation groups, has released a conservation plan to improve the species’ prospects by 2050.

Credits

Range Map Help

Golden-winged Warbler Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Golden-winged Warblers migrate south mainly through a corridor of states east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachians, with peak movement in September. They begin to return on spring migration in April, during which month they are still regularly recorded in Costa Rica as well as in Texas and Kentucky.

Find This Bird

Your best bet for spotting this increasingly rare species is to visit a shrubby, open area where there are known breeding birds. (Minnesota is the stronghold of the remaining Golden-winged Warbler population.) Try to visit during May and June. Males are very vocal and active then; they make long, conspicuous flights, perching near the top of a sapling to sing boldly. Look for males and females hopping about in shrubs in search of food (females forage closer to the ground). Males are fairly responsive to pishing, which may encourage a Golden-winged Warbler to pop just its face out of protective cover. On migration in late April and early May, look for these uncommon migrants at woodlots and other migrant traps that draw in large numbers of other migratory songbirds.

Get Involved

To learn more about Golden-winged Warbler conservation, visit the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group website.

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A Golden Plan for a Turnaround: The Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Plan lays out a blueprint for reversing one of the steepest declines of any songbird in the last half-century. Story in Living Bird magazine.

Golden-winged Warbler: Conservation Strategy

Golden-winged Warbler: Resources for Landowners and Land Managers