From the moment that winter melted into spring, I patiently awaited the arrival of a particular migrant warbler. For weeks, I strained to hear the faint buzz of this annual traveler. Chestnut-sided Warblers had already arrived, performing their hurried songs. The Indigo Buntings appeared overnight, bringing their shining exteriors and crystal whistles. One morning, I finally heard the lazy buzzing song that I had been waiting for. Out of the bushes hopped a stunning bird. As it methodically gleaned insects from the leaves, I glimpsed lemon patches highlighted by bold splashes of black. This bird is none other than the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera).
The Golden-winged Warbler is a wonderful example of how cross-continental conservation practices have the potential to protect a species. They breed in the northernmost reaches of the Eastern United States and parts of Canada. Their range also extends down the Appalachian Mountains in a scattered patchwork. When the breeding season comes to a close, their migration pathway, which covers most of the Eastern US, leads these warblers to Central and South America. This species has faced significant population declines over the last half century, and conservation efforts across their entire range are necessary to preserve them.
The reason for the decline is due largely to three reasons: habitat loss, hybridization, and competition. The Golden-wings are very particular about their breeding habitat. They prefer early successional forest adjacent to mature forest. Bogs, marshes, recently clear-cut, and shrubby habitats are perfect for these birds. This kind of habitat was once maintained by natural disturbances. With recent changes caused by anthropogenic land use, the processes that once sustained suitable forest openings have now been disrupted. In the northern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, satisfactory Golden-winged habitat has declined by an astounding 43 percent. While breeding habitat is important, the species can only persist if there is equally suitable habitat in their wintering range. In Central and South America, they often frequent coffee farms. Shade-grown coffee farms are the most suitable for over-wintering songbirds, as they provide diverse flora, fauna, and habitat. Sun-grown or monoculture coffee farms, however, are typically unsuitable or undesirable for migrant songbirds. Besides habitat loss, interactions with other species appear to be a persistent issue with Golden-winged population declines.
The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) is the only other representative of the genus Vermivora in North America. Because the two species are so similar, they often hybridize. This may not seem so bad at first glance considering that they can still produce viable young; however, hybridization can change the genetic makeup of the species. Hybrids may also have difficulty finding a mate, effectively reducing the number of breeding individuals in the population. Additionally, the Blue-wings prove to be quite the formidable competitor. The two species frequently compete for the use of breeding grounds where their ranges overlap, and Blue-wings often come out victorious. As Golden-wings become more scarce, it is important to examine aggressive interaction with other species as well. A recent study noted that Chestnut-sided Warblers were frequently observed engaging in agonistic behaviors with Golden-winged Warblers. While the situation is not fully understood, this study is a good example that there might be other factors contributing to their decline.
No matter the reason, the losses are staggering. Their overall population has dropped by 66 percent over the past half century. Approximately 98 percent of the Appalachian population has disappeared. While they once thrived across their range, the biggest breeding stronghold is now only concentrated in Minnesota. The Golden-winged Warbler has “suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird” (American Bird Conservancy).
Luckily, many organizations have been active in efforts to rehabilitate Golden-winged numbers. The American Bird Conservancy is working to restore much needed habitat across the warbler’s entire range. Partnerships and funding with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, and El Jaguar Reserve in Nicaragua are just a few ways that concerned naturalists are coming together to help this species. Practices such as grazing, clear cutting, selective reforestation, and maintaining shade-grown coffee farms have been effectively restoring the places that these birds need in order to prosper. While these organizations have done great work, there are several ways that you can help the Golden-wings too. For the coffee connoisseur, consider switching your morning roast to a certified bird-friendly brand to support farmers in Central and South America who manage their farms for wildlife. For land owners who are interested in trying their hand at land management, contact a local wildlife agency or USDA service center for assistance (and maybe even receive a financial incentive in the process!). Donations and volunteers are always welcome at regional conservation groups. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy cover sites in our region of the VA, TN, and NC mountains – there are plenty of opportunities to contribute to this species preservation!
There are many great locations across the Southern Appalachian Mountains for viewing Golden-winged Warblers. As this year’s breeding season draws to a close, the warblers will be departing for their continental journey very soon. Plan a trip to see these birds and their special habitat as they prepare to leave behind the mountains until their buzzing songs hum across the ridgetops once again at the return of spring.