Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera)

Photo by Dennis Malueg Golden-winged Warbler by Dennis MaluegGolden-winged Warbler distribution map


Population Information

Federal BBS information can be obtained at by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for 1966-2005.

Life History

Habitat Selection

The Golden-winged Warbler occurs in a wide variety of early-successional habitats. In Wisconsin it often inhabits brushy clearcuts, shrubby swamps, overgrown abandoned agricultural fields, and edges of hardwood stands, especially aspen (Temple 2006). One to ten year-old aspen stands harbored a higher abundance of Golden-winged Warblers than other early seral habitats in north-central Wisconsin (Martin et al. in press). Golden-winged Warblers were present in high densities (0.55 males/ha) in young aspen clearcuts with high aspen sucker densities in Wisconsin (Roth and Lutz 2004) in contrast to clearcuts in the Appalachians and northeastern U.S. (Confer 1992, Klaus and Buehler 2001). In the national forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Golden-winged Warbler presence was best predicted by the amount of lowland shrub cover within a 100 meter buffer area of the survey point (Hanowski 2002).

In the Appalachians and northeastern U.S., common elements of Golden-winged Warbler habitat include a clumped distribution of herbs and shrubs (Confer 1992), an extensive and diverse edge (Rossell et al. 2003), and a high herbaceous cover (Klaus and Buehler 2001, Confer et al. 2003). The Golden-winged Warbler selects areas based on their degree of patchiness and structural complexity (Rossell et al. 2003). Payne (1991) suggested that Golden-winged Warblers tend to occur in more open habitats than Blue-winged Warblers in Michigan, often occurring in earlier stages of plant succession. Also, where Golden-winged Warblers co-occur with Blue-winged Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers may predominate in wetter shrub habitats (Will 1986). Nest sites are located along the edge of a forest field or in small forest openings. Nests are placed on the ground, often at the base of goldenrod, berry bushes or some other leafy plant material (Confer 1992).    

Habitat Availability

Historically, the Golden-winged Warbler had a broad distribution across the state (Robbins 1991). Extensive clearcutting during the nineteenth century created ample suitable habitat for this early-successional habitat specialist (Temple 2006). More recently, the Golden-winged Warbler’s breeding range has contracted northward and it is now largely extirpated from most historical breeding areas in the southern regions of the state. Loss of shrubby habitat to succession and development may play a role in this range shift, along with global climate change and genetic introgression with the northward-expanding Blue-winged Warbler.

Alder thickets remain common and widespread in northern and central Wisconsin, but also occur at isolated locales in the southern part of the state. Shrub-carr remains common and widespread in southern Wisconsin, but also occurs in the north (WDNR 2005). However, these lowland shrub habitats are increasingly threatened by human development especially along riparian zones. Though aspen cover remains stable in the northern third of Wisconsin, forest inventories documented decreases in aspen cover by 36% and 17% for the central and southern thirds of the state respectively between 1983 and 1996 (Schmidt 1997). However, a statewide increase in the seedling/sapling age-class of aspen forest was also observed over the same period suggesting increased habitat availability in some areas for Golden-winged Warblers. It is unknown if this represents quality breeding habitat.

Population Concerns

Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data indicate population declines range-wide and in Wisconsin (-1.8%/yr), although the latter trend has marginal statistical significance (P=0.08) (Sauer et al. 2005). In Wisconsin it is a fairly common summer resident north and central, but rare in the south (Robbins 1991). During the six-year period (1995-2000) of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, observers recorded breeding activity in 39% and confirmed nesting in 15% of the surveyed quads, primarily in the northern half of the state (Temple 2006). Succession of early seral woodlands and hybridization with the northward expanding Blue-winged Warbler are major concerns in Wisconsin (WDNR 2005) and throughout this species’ breeding range. Even where suitable habitat remains, hybridization may contribute to local extirpations of Golden-winged Warblers (Confer et al. 2003). Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism may be an additional negative factor leading to the Golden-winged Warbler decline (Confer et al. 2003) though this may be less of a concern in northern landscapes with extensive forest cover and low cowbird populations.

Recommended Management

There are important opportunities for Golden-winged Warbler conservation and management in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota because of high population densities and the absence of Blue-winged Warblers outside of a few individuals (Martin et al. in press).  Management efforts should focus on maintaining a mosaic of lowland and Grassland-shrub communities, especially alder thicket, shrub-carr, and young aspen stands (WDNR 2005). Roth and Lutz (2004), Martin et al. (in press), and Hanowski (2002) found high Golden-winged Warbler use in aspen stands up to 10-11 years post-harvest in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Golden-winged Warblers continue to use older stands at lower densities, selecting open areas created by poor aspen regeneration, wet pockets, old landings, and utility and road rights-of-way (Hanowski 2002, Roth and Lutz 2004). Roth and Lutz (2004) recommended a 40-year rotation of several adjacent aspen stands such that one stand in an area always provides suitable breeding habitat. This type of management may be best applied in areas of known breeding activity to maintain or increase local populations.

Protection and restoration of lowland shrub communities also is a necessary measure toward maintaining Golden-winged Warbler populations. Shearing and burning of wetland shrub habitats is not recommended; in Minnesota these activities led to significantly fewer individuals compared to unmanaged sites within the first three years following management activities (Hanowski et al. 1999).  The amount of time needed for these managed wetland shrub habitats to become attractive to Golden-winged Warblers is unknown. 

Conservation and management strategies for this species should be focused in the following Wisconsin ecological landscapes: Central Sand Plains, Central Lake Michigan Plain (primarily Navarino Wildlife Area), Forest Transition, Northcentral Forest, Northeast Sands, Northern Highland, Northern Lake Michigan Coastal, Northwest Lowlands, Northwest Sands, and Superior Coastal Plain (especially Bibon Swamp on the White River) (WDNR 2005).  

Research Needs

More research is needed into the limiting factors contributing to this species’ decline including loss of habitat, low productivity or survival, hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers, and migration hazards.  Potentially confounding effects of climate change on these factors should be examined (Price 2004). In August 2005, the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group identified the following top research priorities range-wide: 1) define quality habitat; 2) develop a genetic and stable isotope atlas; 3) expand population monitoring; and 4) develop a standardized habitat classification system (Buehler et al. in press). In Wisconsin, more information is needed on preferred site-level characteristics, including clearcut size and placement within a landscape context, stem density requirements, and the efficacy of log-landings.  

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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