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Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler, Laura Erickson

Natural disturbances such as floods, storms, and wildfires pose serious risks to human societies. But in nature they can be as beneficial as they are destructive. For over millions of years wildlife has learned to adapt to these disturbances and even rely on them to provide specific habitat requirements. Golden-winged Warblers reliance on young forests and early successional habitat - the result of wildfires and storms - is just one example. 

In recent decades however, many wetlands have been cleared and drained to prevent flooding from storms while wildfires are effectively suppressed. The suppression of these disturbances in the natural environment resulted in the dominance of mature forests in the Appalachian region and led to population declines of species such as the Golden-winged Warbler. This bird's dwindling numbers and need for aggressive forest management to create and maintain habitat across the landscape makes it an AMJV priority species.

The Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chyrsoptera) is a migratory songbird that spends summers in the eastern and north-central portions of the United States and southern Ontario and winters in Central and northern South America. Throughout late spring, Golden-winged Warblers can be heard singing their buzzy song (zeee bee bee bee) in a variety of early successional habitats throughout portions of Pennsylvania and Maryland. The birds breed in the Appalachians, with males scouting out territory that will provide food, shelter from predators and the elements, and nesting sites. Young birds typically leave the nest around mid-June and will initiate their migration along with juveniles and adults back to wintering grounds in August and September. During their time in the Appalachians, these birds forage for insects like moths and their larvae in the upper half of trees and shrubs.

Because of its use of young forests, golden-winged warbler populations increased for nearly a century as forests were predominantly cut down in the region, natural disturbances took place regularly in remote parts of the Appalachians, and farms were abandoned. Now, it is losing ground. This species is one of the most critically threatened, nonfederally listed vertebrates in eastern North America. Populations have declined annually by about 2 percent over the last 40 years. In 2010, the Golden-winged Warbler was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Along with the loss of early successional habitat, Golden-winged Warblers are declining due to competition and hybridization with a close relative, the Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera). Hybridization with the Blue-winged Warbler gives rise to the distinctly plumaged "Brewster" and "Lawrence" warblers. Brewster's looks like a Blue-winged Warbler with a white chest, and Lawrence's looks like an all-yellow Golden-winged Warbler. Although hybridization produces these unique varieties, it is reducing the number of Golden-winged Warblers found in nature.

The AMJV and partners are working to identify critical areas that Golden-winged warblers use extensively for breeding to preserve and manage. Using the best science available, we are also promoting the creation of early successional habitat in specific locations to expand habitat for this species in peril. Finally, coordinating with international partners in Central and South America, the AMJV is helping to protect habitat throughout the Golden-winged Warblers range.