Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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Species Spotlight: The Service partners to understand the declining Golden-winged Warbler
Midwest Region, July 12, 2012
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Female Golden-winged Warbler with radio telemetry device.
Female Golden-winged Warbler with radio telemetry device. - Photo Credit: Mike Sweet
Golden-winged Warbler snacking on a worm.
Golden-winged Warbler snacking on a worm. - Photo Credit: Mike Sweet

 Prior to an ongoing study headed by the Minnesota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit on the declining Golden-winged Warbler, researchers believed the survival of this songbird was contingent on early successional forests and wetlands. The unit led by Dr. David Andersen and Dr. Henry Streby is a cooperative effort on behalf of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), University of Minnesota, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service,) is discovering there is more to this bird’s story. Within the Service, both Migratory Birds (MB) and Wildlife Sport and Fish Restoration (WSFR) programs have granted funding to support this ground breaking research.

This research is crucial because the Golden-winged Warbler, a tiny 4-inch long elusive bird has been declining over the past few decades in the United States.  On the east coast alone, the species has experienced more than a 20 percent population decline.  Many factors have contributed to this steep population drop, including the loss of early successional forests, wetland drainage, human development, and hybridization with Blue-winged Warblers. The sharp drop in population sparked an ongoing movement for conservation, and in 2010 the Service received a petition to list the Golden-winged Warbler under the Endangered Species Act.

This movement led to a cooperative effort to study the bird which is producing some of the best available biological research with a “focus on comparing ecology and the birds’ population dynamics in managed forests versus shrubby wetlands,” said Andersen. MB program funding supported the study’s preliminary findings from 2011-2012. A cutting edge technology called radio telemetry revealed that the birds travel into mature forests more consistently and much farther than ever documented before. These new findings challenge traditional ideas that the Golden-winged Warbler only uses successional forest or brushy wetland habitats. Instead, the birds use a variety of habitats during breeding season, suggesting that management considerations for Golden-winged Warblers need to include more than early successional forest.

In addition to MB program funding, the WSFR Program has provided State Wildlife Grant (SWG) funds to continue this valuable research in 2012-2013 at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. The SWG program provides federal grants to states to develop and implement programs that benefit wildlife and their habitats. In addition, priority is placed on projects that benefit species of greatest conservation concern.  To be eligible for funding, the WSFR program determines whether state grant proposals adequately address certain conservation needs listed within a State’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Plan.  According to wildlife biologist Tom Will, “Nearly half of the total global breeding population of Golden-winged Warbler resides in Minnesota,” making the state a perfect venue for the research while fitting the Service’s conservation initiative.

WSFR biologist Mike Sweet is one of those responsible for reviewing grant proposals and ensuring they meet the necessary criteria to receive grants.  Sweet said the grant process is about “making sure the public’s money is being appropriately and wisely used.”  The purpose of Minnesota’s State Wildlife Action Plan (Plan) is to maintain the state’s native fauna and flora and to ensure that no additional species are lost.  Accordingly, The Golden-winged Warbler Grant Proposal is aligned with the priorities of Minnesota’s Plan as it is a species of greatest conservation concern and is an appropriate use of 2012-2013 SWG program grants.

Andersen and Streby both emphasize the importance of maintaining dynamic forests with all stages of forest succession represented. Most species are generalists and diverse forests support those needs. “Early successional forest is certainly a critical component of this species habitat, but when you consider the entire season, I would call it a diverse forest bird,” said Streby. 

Alongside Service MB and WSFR programs, several other partners are instrumental in making this research happen including the state of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Service/USGS Science Support Partnership. The new findings from this study will inform future population assessments of the Golden-winged Warbler and conservation management plans. 


Contact Info: Joanna Gilkeson, 6127135170, Joanna_Gilkeson@fws.gov
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