Wildlife Profile

Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera)
by Mark Johns

  Wild Facts about the Golden-winged Warbler

PIF Priority Bird for Southern Blue Ridge

The Golden-winged Warbler is a small but stunning songbird of the northeastern and
north-central United States and parts of southern Canada. It occurs in the mountains of
North Carolina, and is primarily an inhabitant of early successional habitats. Its
scientific name roughly translates to " a worm eating, golden-winged warbler", which is
only partially correct. This bird appears to be declining in many areas and has
disappeared from previously occupied regions. Partners in Flight is an international
program concerned with furthering migratory bird conservation throughout the
Americas. The WatchList, which is compiled by scientists within Partners in Flight
(a program that includes the National Audubon Society), targets birds with declining
populations and limited ranges. Both citizen and professional scientists keep the list
updated. Golden-winged Warblers are currently on the WatchList, which usually lists
birds that face threats on their breeding and wintering grounds and on their migratory

History and Status

This small warbler breeds locally throughout the mountains of North Carolina. It is a
neotropical migrant that winters mainly in southern Central America and northern South
America. Neotropical (New World) migratory birds breed during summer in temperate
North America, migrating north each spring from wintering areas, then fly back south to
spend the bulk of the year in Mexico, Central or South America, or the Caribbean.
Although it has increased in abundance and expanded its distribution for at least a
century, this warbler has declined in recent decades in the southern portion of its
breeding range. It appears to thrive initially with the appearance of shrubby, early
succession fields that follow logging, fire, or abandoned farmlands. Local declines then
correlate with advancing succession and reforestation and also with the invasive range
expansion of the Blue-winged Warbler. The Southern Appalachians may contain up to
one-fifth of all Golden-winged Warblers, making it a potentially very important
stronghold for the species.

Regional declines are shown by the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) for most of the
United States, including North Carolina. However, limited data suggest population and
distribution increases in parts of Canada. It is classified as a species of special concern
by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. More study is badly needed to determine the extent
of limiting factors, as well as the accurate population numbers, trends and distribution in
North Carolina.


Bright patches of yellow on the crown and wings punctuate its elegant soft gray
plumage. The bold chickadee-like patches of black on the throat and face are striking.
Generally the bird is grayish above and whitish below. The black face pattern is brighter
in males, and females have a more grayish throat. Age differences in plumage are slight,
and there is little seasonal color change in plumage. The bill is moderately long for a
warbler, and changes color distinctly during the nonbreeding season.

Habitat and Habits

This warbler has a broad range and variety of plant communities it uses for nesting, but its
territories have a consistent pattern: patches of herbs, shrubs, and scattered trees, plus a
forested edge. During winter it favors semi-open or less dense forests, forest borders and
gaps. The males arrive on the breeding grounds a few days ahead of the females. After
pairs form, the female usually selects the nest site, which is usually on the ground. The
female does all the nest building and incubation, while both parents feed the young.

Parents may feed the young up to a month after they leave the nest. Up to one-third of
all nests are parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, but almost nothing is known about
the effect of cowbird parasitism on the success of Golden-winged Warbler nests.
Songs are of two main types. The typical "type A" song consists of a high buzzy note
followed by usually three buzzes that are slightly lower in pitch. The quality of the notes
is somewhat similar to the song of the Blue-winged Warbler, but the pattern differs. This
type of song is mainly heard from spring migrants and unmated males on the breeding
areas, but also from paired males following females and during minor territorial disputes.

An alternate "type B" song is given by unmated males on the breeding grounds around
sunrise and during intense territorial encounters. This song often becomes the main song
late in the nesting season. Type B songs of Golden-winged Warblers and Blue-winged
Warblers are virtually identical, thus accurate surveys of these species singing alternate
songs need visual confirmation.

Golden-winged and Blue-winged warblers interbreed and produce fertile hybrids.
The more commonly seen hybrid is the "Brewster’s Warbler, and is usually the result of
a hybrid pairing between a "pure" Golden-winged Warbler and a "pure" Blue-winged
Warbler. The Brewster’s phenotype can also result from a second generation hybrid
pairing between a Golden-winged and a Brewster’s. The less common hybrid is the
"Lawrence’s Warbler, which is the result of second generation backcrosses. DNA testing
still suggests that the Golden and Blue winged Warblers are separate species. Over time
in some areas where the two species have a range overlap, Blue-winged Warblers have
been shown to eventually predominate through the hybridization process.

This warbler gleans leaves and twigs, often concentrating its foraging at dead leaf
clusters. It is an acrobatic forager, often hanging upside-down like a chickadee. It rarely
eats flying insects, and focuses on moths, their larvae and pupae. Most foraging takes
place in the upper half of trees and shrubs in the perimeter of the branches on the
breeding grounds. Interestingly enough, this bird occasionally extracts spittle bug larvae
from their foamy cocoons.

Range and Distribution

The current stronghold of this species is at higher elevations (usually between 3000 and
5000 feet) in the Appalachians and in the states and provinces along the eastern United
States/Canada border. The breeding range has been expanding north for decades but at
the same time withdrawing from the south. Most birds winter in southern Central
America and northern South America. They are classic trans-Gulf migrants.
Information on life span and survivorship is lacking.

People Interactions

Because the Golden-winged warbler is a specialist in early successional habitats, its
breeding range should be expected to be dynamic. Little is known of the distribution of
this species BEFORE the large-scale clearings of forests for agriculture in the late 1700’s
and 1800’s. It is possible this species was much less common in North Carolina prior to
European settlement, and it could also have more recently responded positively to the
clearing of mountain forests in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many of these areas are
now mature forests, and many of the farms that were abandoned after the depression
have re-vegetated to successional stages beyond those used by Golden-wings. In short,
this warbler has been greatly impacted by humans . Current trends toward reforestation
and urban/suburban expansion may necessitate deliberate management (a recent idea that
needs further research involves powerline right-of-ways) to maintain or create suitable
habitat. Others have suggested removal of cowbirds, control of Blue-winged Warblers,
various burning cycles in forest patches, and even just allowing the Golden-winged
Warbler to cycle through to whatever population levels will predominate if no action is

Suggested Reading

Peterson Field Guide: Warblers, by Dunn and Garrett, 1997, Houghton Mifflin Co.
Birds in Minnesota, by Janssen, 1987, Univ. of Minnesota Press

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