The breeding range extends from northern Georgia northeastward through the Appalachian Mountains into western New England and southern Ontario west to northern Minnesota. Populations are most dense in north-central Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The central part of this range (Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio) has been practically abandoned since the 19th Century. The breeding range appears to have expanded north- and northwestwards over the last 80 years. This warbler winters from central Guatemala southward into the northwestern tip of South America.
Breeding territories occur in shrubby habitats, often with scattered trees and at the edges of woods. Pastures, wetlands, stream sides, and the interface between forest and meadow are used. This warbler has colonized farmlands that are allowed to return to forest, in the early phases of succession when bushes and small trees dominate. In winter, a variety of moist and open to fairly open wooded habitats are used, usually at low to medium elevations.
By probing leaves and other small vegetative structures with its sharp bill, this songbird mainly consumes insects, especially moths and their larvae, and spiders. Wintering birds appear to prefer the lower canopy, 13-20 feet above ground. Specific studies on diet and feeding behavior are needed.
The male Golden-winged Warbler establishes a 1-14 acre territory, sometimes on the same site as he did the previous year. Females arrive a few days later and are chased by males and courted with singing, perched displays, and the "Moth Flight," characterized by slow speed and exaggerated wing beats. Females probably choose a spot for the nest, usually on the ground and often along the shaded edge of forest and field. The female stacks leaves and larger strips of vegetation, on which she then weaves a cup of finer plant strips. For about 11 days, she incubates 5 light pink or cream-colored eggs that are marked with delicate brown or dark purplish splotches and lines. Little is known about the development of the young, which are fed by both parents for about a month after they fledge. Sometimes, the adults separate the brood and tend one part on their own.
The Golden-winged Warbler visits North America to breed in summer and withdraws to the tropics in winter. In spring, males arrive a little before females, with most migrants arriving in the second and third weeks of May. Southbound migrants move in late summer at the end of August and the beginning of September.