The state of West Virginia is quickly losing one of its most stunning songbirds.
In recent years, the golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) has been experiencing population declines throughout the northeastern United States. Unfortunately, the Mountain State’s population has experienced a particularly sharp decline.
Two West Virginia University researchers, however, hope extensive research and monitoring of West Virginia’s population will offer possible solutions to help preserve the threatened species.
Petra Wood, a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and adjunct professor of wildlife in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Kyle Aldinger, a native of Hummelstown, Pa. who is pursuing a doctoral degree in forest resources science, received a $16,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor the population status of the species and associated avian species inhabiting high elevation pasturelands in West Virginia.
According to Wood, there are likely a variety reasons for the decline.
“A factor in the population decline is change in the species’ breeding habitat,” she said. “Hybridization with blue-winged warblers, a closely related species, as well as nest parasitism by the brown-headed cowbirds also contribute to the problem.”
Golden-winged warblers breed in sites known as early successional habitats – areas of growing grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife, where different types of plants gradually and regularly replace one another – and rely heavily on human disturbances such as mowing, cutting and burning to maintain them. Left unmaintained, the habitats will eventually become forests.
“Even with its recent population decline, West Virginia still represents one of the strongholds of golden-winged warbler populations in the Appalachian region,” Aldinger added. “Since they only breed in early successional habitats and generally at higher elevations greater than 700 meters, their habitats are quite rare and unique in West Virginia as it’s predominantly a forested state.”
In a 2008 study, the researchers identified high-elevation grazing areas like allotments in the Monongahela National Forest as important breeding ground for the species.
To aid conservation efforts in the state, the pair will investigate habitat management strategies for the species with particular interest in how it is affected by livestock grazing, brush-hogging or mechanical mowing, and light tree harvest.
Aldinger notes they have been tracking nest survival, male territory density and size, and movements as indicators of habitat management success.
“Ultimately, the information we gather will help guide conservation and habitat management for the species,” he said. “However, other objectives include testing survey protocols, measuring breeding habitat characteristics of the species, and investigating its use of abandoned and active livestock pastures.”
With any luck, research efforts will help preserve and promote the songbird’s population for future generations to enjoy.
CONTACT: Lindsay Willey; Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
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