Golden-cheeked Warbler

Dendroica chrysoparia

Image by Steve Maslowski, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • PARULIDAE
  • Wood Warblers
  • Passeriformes
  • Chipe de Mejilla Dorada
  • Paruline à dos noir
Introduction

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is one of the most at-risk species in North America. It breeds exclusively on or near the Edwards Plateau of central Texas, requiring Ashe juniper habitat, much of which has been lost or altered due to urban sprawl and land management practices. Birders make the pilgrimage from all over the world to see this special songbird.

Bird Sounds
Lang Elliot
Appearance Description

This small songbird measures about 5 inches long with a 7.75 inch wingspan and weighs .34 ounces. The male has a bright yellow face framed by a black bib, crown, nape, back and bill. A black eye stripe runs from the bill through the eye to the nape. The lower parts are white, with two thick and jagged black lines running along the sides. The upper wing is grey with two thick, white wing bars. The female looks similar, but her throat is white, her upperparts are grey, her eyestripe is thin, and her wingbars are smaller than the male's.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

The breeding range for the Golden-cheeked Warbler is limited to central Texas: the Edward's Plateau, the Lampasas Cut Plain, and the Central Mineral Region, also known as the Llano Uplift. Its range has shrunk drastically, from more than 40 counties to 25 or fewer. Estimated at approximately 66,000 acres in 2003, the largest section of continuous habitat exists on Fort Hood, Texas. In winter, this warbler is confined to a narrow band in Central American foothills and mountains, mostly between 3,300 and 8,300 feet, from southern Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras. All year round, its distribution is patchy.

Habitat

Only in Texas, breeding territories are established in Ashe juniper forests with various oaks: Lacey, Live, Shin, and Spanish. This habitat occurs on limestone hills and canyons. The forest must be mature, with junipers reaching at least 17 feet and oaks measuring about 20 feet; and forest patches need to be large, at least 250 acres. The border of the forest is used, but this warbler successfully raises more young when nests are well within the forest. Migration and wintering habitats are similar: a mixed deciduous and evergreen forest, dominated by pines, between 3,300 and 8,300 feet.

Feeding

The Golden-cheeked Warbler appears to be completely insectivorous. Hopping over small branches and twigs, it plucks insects from all surfaces. It can reach its prey by flying out to snatch it from the air or hovering in front of a leaf or twig to grab it. Only the summer diet has been recorded, and it includes aphids, beetles, flies, leafhoppers, moths and their larvae, and spiders. Caterpillars are especially important for feeding to young warblers.

Reproduction

In early to mid-March, the male Golden-cheeked Warbler establishes a territory, about 10 acres in area. Older males usually reclaim the previous year's site and immediately defend it with song, chases, and physical attacks against rival males. Monogamous pairs form for the season. Females probably choose a spot for the nest, usually in an Ashe juniper tree, 16-23 feet above the ground. While the male defends the territory, the female stacks strips of juniper bark in a forked branch, on which she then weaves a cup of bark strips, lined with thin pieces of grass, animal hair, or down. The nest is stuck together with spider silks and insect cocoons. 

For 10-12 days, she incubates 3-4 whitish eggs marked with delicate brown or purplish dots. Practically naked, blind, and barely able to raise their heads, the hatchlings grow quickly and leave the nest in 9-12 days. Usually, the adults separate the brood and manage one part on their own, but the entire family may stay on the territory together, until the young are independent about 1 month after leaving the nest.

Migration

Many Golden-cheeked Warblers only stay in Texas for about three months, from March to June, and all of them leave by the fall. Usually in flocks with other songbirds, spring migrants travel along Mexico's Sierra Madre Oriental and arrive on the breeding grounds as early as the first week in March. Following the same path, most post-breeders and juveniles depart by mid-June, and only a few linger into August.

  • 21,000
  • 21,000
Population Status Trends

Range-wide population studies of the Golden-cheeked Warbler rely on just a little hard data, and few surveys have ever been conducted on private lands. Population estimates for breeding birds between 1962 and 1974 indicated an 8 to 12% drop. BirdLife International's 2005 estimate for the Golden-cheeked Warbler was 9,600-32,000 individuals, based on a 1990 survey cited in The Birds of North America 1999 account of the species. Intensive surveys on Fort Hood, Texas, counted 5,373 singing males on 53,000 acres in 2006. A new, comprehensive population survey is vitally needed.

Conservation Issues

Preservation of the Golden-cheeked Warbler's habitat is the key to its future. While meeting its mission to the nation, the U.S. Army at Fort Hood has been able to protect the largest patch of contiguous juniper-oak and balance the needs of two Endangered species: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. Recently, a greater demand for training on the base has allowed a controversial program to reach implementation in 2007. The base sells conservation credits to local landowners, in exchange for the right to stop protecting the warbler's habitat. This program, the Recovery Credit System (RCS), endorsed by Environmental Defense, may cut the protected area from 60,000 to 10,000 acres. While the RCS may increase warbler habitat elsewhere, that "new" habitat may be fragmented and the populations on it less accessible to monitoring, cowbird removal, and scientific research.

Golden-cheeked Warblers have suffered greatly as juniper-oak woodlands have been cleared for fencing material, fuel, grazing, and urban sprawl. In 1990, land owners destroyed this habitat in anticipation of the species' forthcoming endangered species status. Ongoing habitat fragmentation and intensive cattle ranching increase predation by rat snakes, Blue Jays, Western Scrub Jays, and American Crows. It can also increase brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds.

Habitat restoration efforts continue by several conservation groups in the area. These efforts range from planting trees and erecting fencing around restored habitat to patrolling key nesting areas and mapping breeding territories and monitoring Golden-cheeked populations. Travis Audubon Society owns and manages a 680-acre parcel for Golden-cheeked Warblers. The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve is a land bank, similar to the RCS. Equally controversial, its goal is to offset urban development around Austin in exchange for preservation of adjacent warbler habitat.

What You Can Do

Buy shade-grown coffee, preferably farmed in the rustic tradition, which gives the Golden-cheeked Warbler a place to winter. Learn more about coffee production, history, and ecology at Audubon's web site  and the American Birding Association's site, Shade Grown Coffee: A Glossary for Birders

Join Audubon's effort in supporting the Endangered Species Act , which has made it possible to learn critical information about this species' biology and to protect its habitat.

In late spring, look for the Golden-cheeked Warbler outside Austin, Texas, at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. This Important Bird Area allows limited access and offers guided tours.

Audubon's Important Bird Area program is an essential tool for the conservation of Golden-cheeked Warblers as well as other species. Learn how you can get involved in the Important Bird Areas program

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Environmental Defense explains its position on the Recovery Credits System in "Recovery Credits Trading: Making Wildlife Habitat Profitable for Landowners"  (June 2007).

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Ladd, C., and L. Gass. 1999. Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia). In The Birds of North America, No. 420 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Conservation Status References

Clayton, Mark. "Warblers, vireos, and tanks: Army tries new approach." The Christian Science Monitor. August 6, 2007. Accessed 4 September 2007. 

Ladd, C., and L. Gass. 1999. Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia). In The Birds of North America, No. 420 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Pekins, Charles E. "Of Tanks and Birds." Endangered Species Bulletin 31:2 (July 2006) pages 32-33. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed 2 September 2007.

Zwartjes, Michele. Conservation Plan for the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve. The Nature Conservancy of Texas. December 1999, reviewed January 2002. Accessed 2 September 2007.