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Golden-winged Warbler
Vermivora chrysoptera
– Family
Authors: Confer, John L.
Revisors: Confer, John L., Patricia Hartman, and Amber Roth

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Male Golden-winged Warbler, Aitkin Co., MN, 10 June.
Figure 1. Breeding and non-breeding (winter) range of the Golden-winged warbler.

An imperiled Neotropical migrant, the Golden-winged Warbler is a small but stunning songbird breeding in eastern North America. Bright patches of yellow on the crown and wings punctuate its soft gray plumage, as do the bold chickadee-like patches of black on the throat and face. It breeds in higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains and northeastern and north-central U.S., with a disjunct population from southeastern Ontario and adjacent Quebec northwest to Minnesota and Manitoba.

This warbler nests in habitat with dense herbaceous cover and patches of shrubs, often adjacent to a forest edge, and in the Appalachian region usually at moderate elevations. Natural disturbance habitats include beaver glades, openings from natural fires, oak parklands, and swamp forests with partially open canopy. It also occurs in a variety of anthropogenic disturbance sites such as clearcuts, abandoned farmlands, reclaimed strip mines, and power line rights-of-ways.

The Golden-winged and Blue-winged warblers interbreed and produce fertile hybrid offspring. Hybrid forms were first believed to be two separate species (Brewster’s and Lawrence’s Warbler), but were later understood to carry the dominant and recessive traits of the two parental species. Early work on hybridization compared species recognition capabilities of Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers in sympatric and allopatric populations (Ficken and Ficken 1968, 1969, 1970, 1973, Gill and Murray 1972a, 1972b, 1976, 1980). DNA analyses show a 3.0% to 4.5% mitochondrial sequence divergence, which suggests the two species became isolated several million years ago (Gill 1987, 1997, Shapiro et al. 2004, Dabrowski et al. 2005, Vallender 2007). Inexplicably, there is little differentiation in nuclear DNA between the two species (Vallender et al. 2007), which suggests recent isolation.

The Golden-winged Warbler increased in abundance and expanded its distribution into New England more than a century ago and has continued to expand to the north and northwest in the north-central states and adjacent Canada during the last 100 years, yet it is declining in many areas and has disappeared from previously occupied regions (Confer et al. 2003, Buehler et al. 2007). Local declines correlate with both loss of habitat owing to succession and reforestation and with expansion of the Blue-winged Warbler into the range of the Golden-wing. The loss of winter habitat in Central and South America and migratory habitat may also contribute to the Golden-wing’s decline.