A piercing yet melodic bird's song rings from the branches of a juniper-oak tree. The sound almost resembles a bee buzzing—two short "bzz" chirps followed by a prolonged high "zee" sound. The Golden-cheeked Warbler's tune is a telltale of March, as the bird arrives in Texas at the beginning of the month from their wintering grounds of Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala to begin their nesting season and to raise their young. The males typically arrive in Texas first to establish their territory, with the females following close behind.
The warbler is a small yet eye-catching songbird. Just 4.5 to 5 inches long with a wingspan of about 8 inches, its black stripes, white belly and bright yellow cheeks gives the bird its unique name.
The Golden-cheeked Warbler is a Texas specialty—of the nearly 360 bird species that breed in Texas. It is the only bird species whose population nests entirely in Texas, specifically in the juniper-oak woodlands of the state's central region, including the Brazos River basin. You are likely to hear this bird's melodic call in the Edwards Plateau and north of Palo Pinto County. However, despite the warbler's song resounding from the tops of central Texas' trees, the bird ranks as one of five endangered species that can be found in the Brazos River basin.
There are two levels of protection that a species may be categorized on both a state and federal level: threatened and endangered. To be listed as an endangered species, a plant or animal must be in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its habitat range.
As an endangered species, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department due to its population decline. The decrease is caused by the fragmentation and destruction of habitat and nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds. The Golden-cheeked Warbler already has a small range and population, but it reached endangered status when its nesting grounds became compromised by the cowbirds along with residential developments in their habitat. Many tall juniper and oak woodlands have been cleared throughout the years for urban developments or livestock grazing. Habitat loss on their wintering grounds due to timber harvest and agricultural development is also a problem.
The warbler is extremely dependent on their habitat. They require an older growth forest with a dense tree canopy to forage for their primary source of food, which is insects. The migratory bird also uses the peeling bark found only on mature juniper trees, along with spider webs, for nest building.
As part of the ongoing conservation efforts to preserve this uniquely Texan bird, the United States Department of Defense, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with other agencies and private landowners, have engaged in conservation easements for the land and habitat acquisition and management of Golden-cheeked Warbler's breeding habitat. Conservation practices on these lands are simple—preservation of old-growth dense woodlands and forests and population monitoring.
Other suggested efforts to improve the habitat for these birds include wild pig trapping, cowbird control, native and exotic deer control, and prescribed burns, which reduce accumulated brush piles near habitat edges.
If you live in a region where the Golden-cheeked Warbler nests, Texas Parks and Wildlife has a comprehensive guide that will help you determine whether a Golden-cheeked warbler may use your property as a habitat and how to maintain your property with the preservation of the warbler in mind.
"Private landowners have a tremendous opportunity to conserve and manage the fish and wildlife resources of Texas," the TPWD guide states. "The objective of these guidelines is to provide landowners with recommendations about how typically-used agricultural land management practices could be conducted so that it would be unlikely that Golden-cheeked Warblers would be adversely impacted. TPWD biologists have prepared these guidelines in consultation with USFWS biologists to assure landowners who carry out agricultural land management practices within the guidelines that they would know, with the greatest certainty possible, that they would not be in violation of the Endangered Species Act."
To learn more about the Golden-cheeked Warbler and other species of interest within the Brazos River basin, visit the Brazos River Authority's new Environmental website tab here.