A neotropical migrant with a drastically decreasing population, the golden-winged warbler is one of the most highly sought-after target birds for North American birders. Brilliantly colored, they are easily identified when seen well, but because of extensive hybridization, similar birds can be confusing to separate.
Common Name: Golden-Winged Warbler
Scientific Name: Vermivora chrysoptera
Scientific Family: Parulidae
- Bill: Relatively long and thin, sharply pointed, black on males and grayish on females
- Size: 4.75-5 inches long with 8-inch wingspan, long bill, notched tail, tapered build
- Colors: Black, white, yellow, gray
- Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a bright yellow crown, black lores and a black auricular patch, as well as a black chin and throat. These facial markings contrast boldly with a white eyebrow and white malar stripe. The nape, back and rump are gray, and the underparts are whitish with a gray wash on the flanks. The black wings have a wide yellow patch. The eyes are black, and the legs and feet are dark. Females have similar markings but are paler overall, with gray rather than black lores, auriculars and throat. Females may show less extensive yellow on the crown and wings, but the overall color extent can be variable.
Juveniles are similar to adults but with less distinct markings.
Species is monotypic.
Foods: Caterpillars, spiders, larvae, insects (See: Insectivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These warblers prefer fractured, patchy habitat such as woodland borders, gardens, shrubby growth, swamps, bogs, marshes and scrub riparian zones. While less mature areas are preferred for breeding, after fledglings have left the nest, these warblers tend to move into adjacent regions with more open, mature forests.
During the summer breeding season, these birds are found in suitable habitats from southeastern Manitoba to northern Minnesota and Wisconsin east to southern Ottawa, New York and Vermont, as well as throughout Michigan. Their breeding range also extends into the Appalachian Mountains as far south as eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and northern Georgia, though much of the Appalachian population has been extirpated. In winter, these birds migrate to Central America from Belize and Guatemala south to northern South America in northern Colombia and eastern Venezuela. Golden-winged warblers also spend winters in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands.
Vagrant sightings are occasionally recorded much further west than expected, even as far as along the Pacific coast, as well as in other parts of the Caribbean. Vagrants are most often seen during fall migration.
Male golden-winged warblers are exuberant singers in early spring as they claim territories and work to attract mates. The typical song is a rapid warble followed by three buzzy, drawn out "tzip" notes. The song lasts 3-4 seconds, and may be repeated frequently as the male perches out in the open to proclaim his strength.
These warblers are acrobatic foragers, often dangling upside down as they glean insects from leaves and branches, typically low or at mid-levels in trees and shrubs. When flying between trees, their flight has a fluttery quality, and males may aggressively chase or even fight rivals during the breeding season.
These are monogamous birds. The female builds a cup-shaped nest on the ground, often at the base of a tree or hidden by tall grass, using leaves, bark and grass and lining the interior of the cup with hair or fur. The oval-shaped eggs range from white or cream-colored to a pale pink, and are marked with small brown or lilac spots or splotches. There are 4-7 eggs in each brood, and only one brood is raised each year.
The female incubates the eggs for 10 days, and after the altricial young hatch, both parents feed the chicks for an additional 9-10 days until they are ready to leave the nest.
Golden-winged warblers regularly hybridize with blue-winged warblers, creating distinct offspring that are named Brewster's warblers. Those offspring may themselves hybridize with other full-species golden-winged warblers, and birds from this third generation are Lawrence's warblers. These hybrids are not distinct species, and each one shows strong but indistinct characteristics of golden-winged warblers.
Attracting Golden-Winged Warblers:
These warblers are not common backyard birds and are not inclined to visit backyards, but avoiding pesticide use that could eliminate food sources can help attract these birds. They may also forage in leaf litter, and they are responsive to pishing, particularly early in the breeding season when males are more aggressive. This bird's range is expanding slightly to the north, and backyard birders who take steps to create the type of patchy habitat these warblers prefer may have success in attracting them.
The golden-winged warbler population has decreased by more than 75 percent in the last 50 years, and these birds are classified as near threatened, though they are not yet officially endangered. Habitat loss and genetic dilution from cross-breeding and hybridization are threatening this warbler, but backyard birders can help by not only protecting habitat at home, but also supporting shade-grown coffee and cocoa plantations in Central America where these birds spend their winters.
- Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus)
- Gray Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
- Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
- Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)