Golden-Cheeked Warbler

Endangered Texan Species

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Background Info

The golden-cheeked warbler is one of over 200 species of migratory birds whose survival is threatened by destruction of tropical rain forests. As a neotropical migratory bird, the warbler, spends its summers in North America and winters in the forests of South or Central America. It breeds in Texas during the summer and winters in southernmost Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

The golden-cheeked warbler is an insect-eating bird that is totally dependent on stands of mature ashe juniper in Texas for nesting habitat. Warblers arrive at their breeding grounds mid-March, returning to the same territories each year and nesting from April to May. They migrate through a narrow band of cloud forest along the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico.

The warbler's population has declined dramatically in the last 20 years. In 1974, the population was estimated at 15,000 to 17,000 birds. In 1990, it had dropped to 2,200 to 4,600.

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Cause of Endangerment

The major threat to the warbler is habitat destruction and fragmentation. It's winter home, the tropical rain forest, is under threat of being cut down at a rapid pace for agriculture and human settlement. In Texas, it's summer habitat, the most significant cause of the species' decline is the widespread destruction of juniper in Texas. From the 1950s to 1970, 50% of juniper habitat was cleared for pasture and urbanization.

A recent, rising threat to warblers is Brown-headed cowbird parasitism. As their habitat becomes more fragmented, warblers must nest closer to the edge of the forest and the cowbird has ready access to their nests. The cowbirds lays their eggs in the warbler's nest, replacing the warbler’s eggs with their own. The warbler raises the cowbird chicks and thus fails to reproduce.

Pesticide has also begun to contribute to the destruction of the warbler's food source in tropical areas. The spraying to control the Mediterranean fruit fly in Guatemala affected many species of insects in addition to the fruit fly, decreasing the insect-staple to the warbler's diet.

Course of Action for Prevention

Golden-cheeked warbler's are protected under the Endangered Species Act. In the United States, it is illegal to “take” (kill, capture, wound, harass, or harm) a species that is on the Endangered Species Act’s list of threatened or endangered species. Harm to the species includes destroying habitat if doing so kills or injures members of the species.

Landowners who want to bulldoze warbler habitat on their land have to get permission from the government. To get permission, they must prepare a plan to help conserve the warbler on their property even though they are cutting down some of the habitat.

Improvements in agricultural practices could save the warbler's tropical rainforest habitat. For example, large amount of tropical forest recently has been cut down to make way for sun-grown coffee plantations. In its native state, coffee grows in the shade of a varied canopy of tall trees.

Until recently, nearly all commercial coffee has been produced in conditions mimicking natural forest, with canopy trees providing fruit and firewood to the coffee farmers.

New coffee-growing methods result in these tree canopies being destroyed, and with them, habitat for songbirds. Big coffee growers now grow coffee in full sun because it yields more beans. “Sun coffee” requires heavy doses of pesticides, however. Small farmers cannot afford the increased cost of chemicals, so many go out of business.

One-third of the world’s coffee is consumed in the United States. If American consumers and businesses would demand shade-grown coffee, it would help preserve both habitat for songbirds and a way of life for local farmers.