Golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia)

GenusDendroica (1)
SizeLength: 12 - 13 cm (2)
Weight7 - 15 g (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A small, attractively marked warbler, the male golden-cheeked warbler has, as its name suggests, a bright yellow face, which is framed by a black crown and throat, and split by a black eye-stripe extending from the eye to the back of the neck. The upper breast and back are black, while the lower breast and belly are white, with some black streaks, and with a thick black stripe running down each side. The wings are blackish, with two distinct white wing bars, while the tail is black with white outer feathers. The female golden-cheeked warbler is similar to the male, but less distinctly marked, with an olive to grey, black-streaked back and crown, duller yellow cheeks, a yellowish chin and upper throat, and a smaller eyestripe and wing bar. The juvenile is similar to the adult female, but more drab (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). 

The golden-cheeked warbler uses at least three distinct songs, including a variable, buzzy zee zee zeedee-zee, typically given by the male (2) (4) (6). A single, sharp ‘chipping’ call is used while foraging (2) (6).

The golden-cheeked warbler breeds only in central Texas, USA, where its range has shrunk dramatically in recent times, and where it is the only bird to nest entirely within the state. During the winter months, the species migrates to southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, and has also been reported from Costa Rica and Panama (2) (3) (4) (7).

The golden-cheeked warbler breeds in the juniper-oak woodlands of central Texas, typically in limestone hill and canyons, and is dependent on the bark of the Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) for nesting material (2) (3) (4) (6) (8). In winter, it occurs in pine-oak forests, at elevations of between 1,500 and 3,000 metres (2) (4) (8) (9) (10).

The golden-cheeked warbler feeds on insects and spiders, with caterpillars being an important prey item during the breeding season. Prey is taken directly from foliage or snatched from the air (2) (3) (6) (7) (11). Less is known about the diet during winter, when the golden-cheeked warbler occurs in mixed-species flocks (2) (4) (10).

The golden-cheeked warbler arrives on the breeding grounds from early March. The male establishes a breeding territory, often returning to the same site each year, and defends the area with song, chases, and even attacks on intruding males. The nest is built by the female, usually in an Ashe juniper tree, and is constructed from strips of juniper bark, woven together with spider silk and insect cocoons, and lined with grass, hair or down. Between 3 and 5 eggs are laid, and are incubated by the female for around 10 to 12 days, while the male defends the territory. Both adults feed the young, which leave the nest at 9 to 12 days (2) (3) (6) (7) (11). The adults may then separate the brood, each caring for one part alone, but all remain together in the territory until the young are independent, at around a month after fledging. The birds leave for the wintering grounds from June to August, migrating along the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range of eastern Mexico (2) (3) (6) (11).

The main threat to the golden-cheeked warbler is habitat loss, with much of its breeding habitat having been cleared for development, agriculture and reservoir construction (2) (3) (4) (6) (8), and the winter habitat also under threat from logging, burning, firewood-cutting, mineral extraction, and clearance for cattle and agriculture (2) (4) (8) (9) (10). The species’ rather restricted habitat requirements and small breeding range make it particularly vulnerable to habitat loss (4) (10), and ongoing fragmentation of the remaining habitat also creates further problems by isolating populations and so reducing gene flow between them, potentially leading to a loss of genetic diversity. It also decreases nesting success at forest edges, and potentially increases predation, as well as brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) (2) (3) (4) (6). In addition, habitat disturbance may decrease juniper-oak regeneration through disease and increased browsing pressure, and the woodlands may take decades to recover from disturbance, if at all (2) (7). Where juniper has instead spread, often due to fire suppression and overgrazing, it generally lacks the hardwood trees that the golden-cheeked warbler also requires (6).

In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the golden-cheeked warbler as Endangered (5), and the species is also listed as Endangered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (12). A recovery plan put in place in the United States in 1992 called for the protection of sufficient breeding and non-breeding habitat, the allowance of gene flow between warbler populations, and the protection and management of all existing populations on public land (8). The golden-cheeked warbler occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range, including Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and various conservation efforts, including habitat restoration and voluntary cowbird trapping, are underway in many areas (2) (3) (4) (6) (8). 

Further conservation measures recommended for the golden-cheeked warbler include monitoring the breeding population, undertaking further research into the species’ biology, ecology, population status and habitat requirements, educating the public and landowners, and providing incentives for landowners to maintain and develop warbler habitat. Habitat protection will also be vital (2) (3) (4) (6) (8). The golden-cheeked warbler is an attractive bird, and much sought after by birdwatchers (3) (6), raising the possibility of using the growing demand for natural history tours and vacations to help preserve this popular but highly threatened small bird (6).

To find out more about the golden-cheeked warbler and its conservation see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2009)
  2. Ladd, C. and Gass, L. (1999) Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  3. National Audubon Society - Golden-cheeked Warbler Dendroica chrysoparia (November, 2009)
  4. BirdLife International (November, 2009)
  5. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Species Profile - Golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) (November, 2009)
  6. Campbell, L. (1995) Golden-cheeked Warbler. In: Endangered and Threatened Animals of Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin, Texas. Available at:
  7. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Golden-cheeked Warbler (November, 2009)
  8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1992) Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Available at:
  9. Rappole, J.H., King, D.I. and Leimgruber, P. (2000) Winter habitat and distribution of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia). Animal Conservation, 2: 45-59.
  10. Rappole, J.H., King, D.I. and Barrow Jr, W.C. (1999) Winter ecology of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. The Condor, 101: 762-770.
  11. Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  12. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: Golden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) (November, 2009)