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 and are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN. An estimated 400,000 breeding adults remain—a drop of 66% since the 1960s. In the Appalachian Mountains the situation is even worse: the regional population has fallen by 98%.
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.
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.
This finding resulted in two conservation focal areas: the Great Lakes Conservation Region and the Appalachian Conservation Region. Download them below.
For Landowners and Land Managers
The rangewide Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Plan represents knowledge accumulated over 15 years of field surveys, genetic analyses, in-depth habitat studies, and other research. Habitat improvements for Golden-winged Warblers benefit 38 other early successional species, including Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock. The plan was developed by the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, which is a consortium of universities, agencies, and nonprofits including the Cornell Lab’s Conservation Science program.
- Who can help create and manage Golden-winged Warbler breeding habitat? Anybody who manages an appropriate amount and type of land within the conservation focal areas for the Golden-winged Warbler, including managers of public land, land trusts, and private landowners.
- What kind of land is needed? Golden-winged Warblers use young forest and shrubby habitats located in deciduous forest. Prime examples include young forest created through timber harvesting, abandoned farm fields, utility corridors, reclaimed minelands, and shrub wetlands.
The Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Plan
The Golden-winged Warbler Conservation Plan was published in 2013 by a coalition of researchers including the Cornell Lab. It offers a comprehensive species assessment and management strategy for Golden-winged Warbler conservation, and 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
The plan can be downloaded in its entirety on this site, or chapter by chapter on the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group site. There is also an additional chapter on wintering grounds conservation that was published in 2016.
Best Management Practices—Regional Guides: These guides—one for the Great Lakes region and one for the Appalachian region—are distilled from the plan to provide only the most important management actions. They provide land managers and landowners with science-based, regionally specific strategies and techniques for developing and restoring habitat for Golden-winged Warblers.
Habitat Supplements: These two-page documents provide specific guidance for 11 common habitat types within the Golden-winged Warbler’s range. They are concise and intended to be carried into the field to facilitate implementation. Supplements are available for the following habitats:
- Deciduous Forests of the Appalachians and Great Lakes
- Abandoned Farmlands of the Appalachians and Great Lakes
- Utility Rights-of-way of the Appalachians and Great Lakes
- Minelands of the Appalachians
- Grazed Forestland and Montane Pastures of the Appalachians
- Forest and Shrub Wetlands of the Appalachians
- Shrub Wetlands of the Great Lakes
- Aspen Parkland Transition Zone of Canada
Funds Available to Assist With Habitat Restoration
- The federal Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides funding and technical assistance for the creation, management, and restoration of Golden-winged Warbler habitat (the Working Lands for Wildlife program was folded into this program in 2014).
- Through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds projects for golden-wing habitat restoration.