With a very small breeding range, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is endangered, and prefers unfragmented, relatively old juniper-oak habitats. Early arriving males sometimes defend extra large territories, which later shrink as the number of neighboring males increases.
As in many songbirds, the female does the nest building and incubation of eggs, but both the male and female help feed the young. Adults often squish the food in their bill before feeding it to the young.
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Description of the Golden-cheeked Warbler
The Golden-cheeked Warbler has a greenish to black crown and back, white underparts with black streaking on the flanks, a yellow face with a black line through the eye, and two white wing bars.
Males have a black crown and back. Length: 5 in. Wingspan: 8 in.
Females have a greenish crown and back, with dark streaks on the back.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble adult females.
Golden-cheeked Warblers inhabit hillsides of juniper and oak trees.
Golden-cheeked Warblers eat insects.
Golden-cheeked Warblers forage in the upper branches of trees.
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed in central Texas and winter in Mexico and Central America. The population is endangered, and is being intensively managed.
The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only breeding species endemic to Texas.
Juvenile Golden-cheeked Warblers often join mixed species foraging flocks.
Calls include a sharp “sik”, while the song consists of a series of short, buzzy notes.
- Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warblers have paler crowns and eyelines.
The Golden-cheeked Warbler’s nest is cup of bark fibers placed in the fork of a branch.
Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: White with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12 days and leave the nest in about 9 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Golden-cheeked Warbler
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Golden-cheeked Warbler – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
DENDROICA CHRYSOPARIA Sciater and Salvin
This elegant warbler is confined in the breeding season to a very narrow range in south-central Texas, the timbered parts of the “Edwards Plateau” region. It has been reported as breeding in Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Concho, Kendall, Kerr, and Tom Green Counties, and rarely north to Bosque and McLennan Counties. It winters in the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala.
The golden-cheeked warbler was entirely unknown to early American ornithologists. William Brewster (1879) gives the following brief account of its early history: “The original specimens were procured by Mr. Salvin in Vera Paz, Guatemala. Since that time, with the exception of a male obtained by Mr. Dresser, near San Antonio, Texas, about 1864, no additional ones have apparently been taken. The specimen mentioned by Mr. Purdie was taken by George H. Ragsdale in Bosque County, Texas, April, 1878.” The bird is now well known in the limited region outlined above, and many specimens of the birds, their nests, and their eggs have found their way into collections.
The first comprehensive account of its habits was given to Dr. Chapman (1907) by H. P. Attwater, of San Antonio, Tex. He says of its summer haunts in the counties named above:
The Goldencheek Is not a bird of the forest, being seldom met with in the tall timbered areas In the wilder valleys along the rivers, or In the tall trees which fringe the streams in the caflons; its favorite haunts are among the smaller growth of trees, on the rough wooded hillsides, and which covers the slopes and “points” leading up from the caftons, and the boulder strewn ridges or “divides” which separate the heads of the creeks. The trees which compose this growth consist chiefly of mountain cedar (juniper), Spanish or mountain oak, black oak, and live oak on the higher ground, and live oak and Spanish oak clumps or thickets on the lower flats among the foothills, Interspersed in some localities with dwarf walnut, pecan and hackberry. All these trees grow on an average from 10 to 20 feet high, the cedar often forming almost Impenetrable “brakes”. Whatever space remains among the oaks and cedars is generally covered with shin oak brush, which Is a characteristic feature of the region. The cedar or juniper appears to possess some peculiar attraction for this bird for they are seldom found at any great distance from cedar localities, and they seem to divide the greater part of their time between the cedars and Spanish oaks, searching for Insects, ‘with occasional visits to other oaks, walnuts, etc., but seldom descending as low as the shin oak brush, which averages four to five feet. It Is quite probable that future observations will show, that some favorite Insect food which comprises a portion of their “bill of fare,” Is found among the cedar foliage.
Spring: The golden-cheeked warbiers arrive in central Texas about the middle of March, sometimes a little earlier or later. The adult males precede the young males and females by about 5 days. Mr. Attwater (Chapman, 1907) says: “The song of the male is the first unmistakable notification of its arrival and within a few days it is quite common and the females are also observed. In the localities described the Golden-cheeked Warbler is by no means a rare bird, and it is by far the most abundant of the few Warbiers, which breed in the same region.
Nesting: W. H. Werner was apparently the first to find the nest of the golden-cheeked warbler, in Comal County, Tex., in 1878, about which he wrote to Mr. Brewster (1879): “The four nests that I have found were similar in construction, and were built in forks of perpendicular limbs of the Julliperu8 virginiana, from ten to eighteen feet from the ground. The outside is composed of the inner bark of the above-mentioned tree, interspersed with spider-webs, well fastened to the limb, and in color resembling the bark of the tree on which it is built, so that from a little distance it is difficult to detect the nest.” Two of these nests were examined by Mr. Brewster both so much alike that the following description of one will suffice:
It is placed in a nearly upright fork of a red cedar, between two stout branches to which it is firmly attached. Although a large, deep structure, it by no means belongs to either the bulky, or loosely woven class of bird domiciles, but is, on the contrary, very closely and compactly felled. In general character and appearance it closely resembles the average nest of the Black-throated Green Warbler (Dcrnlroica virens). It is, however, of nearly double the size, in fact, larger than any Wood Warbler’s nest (excepting perhaps that of D. coron ate) with which I am acquainted. It measures as follows: external diameter, 3.50; external depth, 3.45; internal diameter, 1.00; internal depth, 2.00. The exterior Is mainly composed of strips of cedar bark, with a slight admixture of fine grassstems, rootlets, and hemp-like fibres, the whole being kept in place by an occasional wrapping of spider-webs. The interior is beautifully liaed with the hair of different quadrupeds and numerous feathers; among the latter, several conspicuous scarlet ones from the Cardinal Grosbeak. The Outer surface of the whole presents a grayish, inconspicuous appearance, and from the nature of the component materials is well calculate(l to escape observation. Indeed, it must depend for concealment upon this protective coloring, as it is in no way sheltered by any surrounding foliage.
Attwater (Chapman, 1907) says:
Of over fifty nests of this bird which I have examined, most of them were securely placed in perpendicular forks of the main limbs of cedar trees, about two-thirds up in the tree; average fifteen feet from the ground. My highest record is twenty-one feet, and lowest six feet. I have also found them in similar positions In small black oak, mountain oak, walnut and pecan trees. * * ï The favorite nesting haunts are isolated patches or clumps of scrubby cedars, with scant foliage, on the summits of the scarped caflon slopes, and in the thick cedar “brakes.” In cedar the older growtb of trees is always selected, and no attempt at concealment is made. I have never found a nest in a young thrifty cedar with thick foliage.
The male is always to be heard singing in the vicialty of the nest, and the old nesting localities, and occasionally the same tree Is selected apparently and returned to one year after another.
Nearly all the nests reported by others were in cedars and were silnilar in construction to those described. There are five nests of the golden-cheeked warbler in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, of which only one was in a cedar; two were in Spanish or mountain oaks and two in live oaks; four of these had more or less admixture of lichens, mosses, bits of dry leaves, and plant down in the bases, and feathers of quail, cardinal and other birds in the linings. The smallest nest in the series measures externally 21/2 inches in diameter and 2 inches in height; it is very neatly and firmly woven.
Plumages: Ridgway (1902) describes the juvenal plumage of the golden-cheeked warbler as follows: “Pileum, hindneck, back, scapulars, rump, and upper tail-coverts plain grayish brown or brownish gray; sides of head, chin, throat, chest, and sides pale brownish gray; rest of under part white, the breast very indistinctly streaked with pale gray; wings and tail essentially as in adults, but middle coverts with a mesial wedge-shaped mark of dusky.”
Apparently there is a partial postjuvenal molt early in the summer, which is similar to that of other wood warbiers. This produces the first winter plumages, in which the sexes are recognizable and much like the respective adults at that season. In the young male the upper parts are streaked with olive-green and black, tile upper tail coverts are margined with olive-green and gray, and the white tips of the median wing coverts have narrow, black shaft streaks instead of the dusky wedges seen in the juvenal coverts. Ridgway (1902) says of the young female: “Similar to the adult female hut pileum, hindneck, hack, scapulars, rump, and upper tail-coverts plain olive-green, or with very indistinct narrow streaks of dusky on pileum and back; throat and chest pale grayish (the feathers dusky beneath surface), the former tinged with yellow anteriorly; sides and flanks indistinctly streaked with dusky.”
I have seen no specimens showing a prenuptial molt, which is probably finished before the birds arrive in Texas. The first and subsequent nuptial plumages may be largely produced by wear, as the fall and winter plumages are much like those of spring birds, but are concealed by the tips and margins of tile feathers. However, it would be strange if there were no prenuptial molt, especially in young birds.
Young birds in first nuptial plumage can be recognized by the worn and faded wings and tail.
Eggs: Four eggs make up the regular set for the golden-cheeked warbler, although sometimes only three and very rarely five are found. They are ovate to short ovate and have only a very slight lustre. They are white or creamy white, finely speckled and spotted with “bay,” “auburn,” or “chestnut,” and occasionally “argus brown,” intermingled with spots of “vinaceous drab,” “brownish drab,” or “light mouse gray.” They are generally finely marked, but sometimes eggs will have spots which are large enough to be called blotches, or even a few small scrawls of very dark brown. The markings are concentrated at the large end, where frequently a fine wreath is formed, or the speckles may be so dense as to almost obscure the ground; occasionally the markings are scattered over the entire egg. The measurements of 50 eggs average 17.7 by 13.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 18.9 by 13.0, 17.8 by 18.7, and 15.6 by 12.4 millimeters (Harris).
Young: We have no information on incubation or on the care and feeding of the nestlings. Attwater (Chapman, 1907) has this to say:
The young birds out of the nest, wbicb are being fed by the parents late in April and in May, are from early nests which have escaped destruction by “northers” on account of their sheltered positions and situations, and it is possible that then another nest is built and a second brood reared. * * * During June the family groups wander about together, chiefly in the caflons and along the lower hillsides, keeping together till the young are old enougb to take care of themselves. While being fed by the parents the “twittering” of the young birds is continually heard, with the cautions “tick, tick” alarm notes of the female when enemies approach. Early in July they begin to scatter, as most of the young birds are then able to shift for themselves.
Food: Very little has been mentioned regarding the food of this wood warbler beyond the fact that it seems to be mainly, if not wholly, insectivorous. Mr. Attwater (1892) says: “Upon examining the stomachs of a number of young birds which were being fed, I found they all contained (with other insects) a number of small black lice (Aphis sp.) which I watched the old birds collecting from the green cedar limbs.”
Behavior: Mr. Attwater wrote to Dr. Chapman (1907):
Like most, of the same sex of other Warbiers, the female of this species is very shy, and seldom noticed except when an intruder disturbs the nest or when feeding the young after leaving it, but the male Golden-cheeked Warbler is by no means a shy bird. He keeps continually flying from tree to tree in search of insects, and on fine days uttering his song at short intervals from early dawn until after sundown, and before nest building begins shows little alarm upon being approached. I have stood under a tree a number of times within five or sIx feet of a wandering male Golden-cheek, which appeared as pleased and interested in watching me as I was in observing him. Seemingly he was desirous of assisting me to describe his song in my note-book, by very obligingly repeating it frequently for my special benefit.
Mr. Werner told Mr. Brewster (1879) that “their habits were similar to those of D. virens; they were very active, always on the alert for insects, examining almost every limb, and now and then darting after them while on the *ing.”
Voice: The song evidently bears a resemblance to that of the blackthroated green warbler in quality. Mr. Werner wrote it terr wea8qwea8y tweak, and referred to the notes as soft. Mr. Attwater wrote to Dr. Chapman (1907) “It would ba difficult to describe the Goldencheek’s song with any real satisfaction. It varies somewhat, being uttered much more rapidly by some individuals than by others. At a distance only the louder parts are heard, so that it sounds quite different than when heard at close quarters. The hurried song might be given as tweak, tweak, twee-ay, with some individuals introducing an extra note or two, and the slower or more deliberate style t’wee-ak, eseak, eachy. After the young leave the nests the males gradually stop singing, and at this period sometimes only use a part of the regular song.”
George Finlay Simmons (1925) describes the song as “ventrioquistic, elusive, seeming to come from here, there, everywhere; terwik-2eee-e-e-c, chy, the first, second, and fourth notes short and soft, the third longest, most distinct, and with the shrill buzzing z-z-z-~ quality of the Black-throated Green Warbler’s song. * * * Sung by male from conspicuous perch atop a small tree near nest and hidden female; heard commonly in spring in the Golden-cheek habitat; males gradually stop singing when young have left. nest. Call, chirping in migration; female, a soft, scolding check, check, check or tick, tick, uttered slowly, a note at a time.”
Enemies: According to Dr. Friedmann (1929), the golden-cheeked warbler is “apparently a rather rare victim of the Dwarf Cowbird.” He mentions only three authentic cases.
Field marks: The golden-cheeked warbler might at first glance be mistaken for a black-throated green warbler, but the upper parts in the adult male are deep black from crown to tail, instead of olivegreen, and the under parts, except for the black throat, are white and not tinged with yellow. The female differs from the eastern bird in the same way.
Fall: Golden-cheeked warblers do not remain on their breeding grounds very long and leave for their winter resorts in Mexico and Central America before the end of summer. Mr. Attwater told Dr. Chapman (1907) that “early in July they begin to scatter, as most of the young birds are then able to shift for themselves. By the middle of July most of the old males have stopped singing, and by the end of July old and young have disappeared from their usual haunts. I have noticed a few stragglers during the first two weeks in August, and all probably leave before September first.”
Range: Texas to Nicaragua.
Breeding range: During the breeding season the golden-cheeked warbler is confined to a few counties in south central Texas: North to Kerr (Ingrain and Kerrville) and Travis (Austin) Counties; south to Bexar (San Antonio) and Medina (Castroville) Counties; and west to Real County (West Frio Canyon). It is probably not so narrowly confined as the definite records indicate. It has been recorded in summer, but with no indication of breeding, at Waco, Hunt, and Commerce.
Winter range: Little is known of the golden-checked warbler in winter. At that season it has been found at Teziutlfln, western Veracrux; Tactic, central Guatemala; and Matagalpa, central northern Nicaragua. On November 23, 1939, and January 8, 1940, a male was observed on the island of St. Croix, Virgin Islands. It has been observed in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Le6n in March, probably on migration.
Migration: Tlie golden-checked warbler is an early migrant both in spring and fall. It has arrived at Kerrville, Tex., as early as March 5, and the majority of the birds have left by the middle of July; latest, Ingram, August 18.
Egg dates: Texas: 29 records, April 1 to June 27; 10 records, April 11 to 24; 10 records, May 18 to 28 (Harris).