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West Virginia Nature Notes
Rare Species Fact Sheets

Cerulean WarblerCerulean Warbler

Scientific Name:
Dendroica cerulea (den-DROY-ka  sir-RUE-lee-ah)

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is currently conducting a status review for the potential listing of the cerulean warbler as a threatened species. Partners in Flight lists the cerulean warbler as a high priority species of concern.

West Virginia Status:
West Virginia supports the highest densities of cerulean warblers anywhere in the species’ breeding range. In the Ohio Hills Physiographic Region of

West Virginia it is one of the most common breeding warblers. Despite being a common breeding bird in West Virginia, cerulean warbler populations are presently in decline. Breeding Bird Survey data from 1966 to 1998 indicate that the cerulean warbler has declined at an average rate of 3.6% per year throughout its breeding range, the greatest of any species of warbler. In West Virginia, this decline is much less at 2.3% per year. Due to its recent decline in West Virginia and elsewhere the cerulean warbler is listed by the West Virginia Partners in Flight Working Group as a high priority species of concern. Even though the cerulean warbler is in decline, it still occurs at such high densities in the state that birds nesting in West Virginia serve to provide a source population to the surrounding region.

The cerulean warbler is the smallest warbler in the genus Dendroica, measuring 11.5 cm (4.5 inches) in length. It has a short tail and relatively long wings for a warbler of its size. In breeding plumage, the male cerulean warbler has bright blue upper parts streaked with black, a white underside, and a thin black “necklace” around its neck. The female is much duller than the male with a dull blue to greenish head and back and a dull white to dull yellow underside. The female also lacks the distinctive black “necklace” of the male.  

The cerulean warbler is a neotropical migrant warbler that breeds in eastern North America and winters in South America. The main breeding range of the cerulean warbler extends from central Minnesota and southern Canada east to Connecticut and Massachusetts south to North Carolina and west to Arkansas. The heart of the breeding range occurs along the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys and within the Cumberland Plateau of West Virginia and Kentucky. In West Virginia this species occurs mainly west of the Allegheny Mountains in the Ohio Hills Physiographic Region, with the highest numbers inhabiting the southwestern portions of the state.  It occurs less frequently in the Eastern Panhandle and it is uncommon within the Allegheny Mountains. The cerulean warbler winters in mixed species flocks on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains from Columbia to Peru, Bolivia, and the montane forests of Venezuela.

Large tracts of mature deciduous forest with a closed canopy and many large tall trees are required as habitat by the cerulean warbler. It is found in a variety of forest types including bottomland forests, moist cove forests and dry upland forests. Although it is poorly understood, the vertical structure of the canopy, sub-canopy, middle and understory layers within the forest also seem to be an important habitat factor. 

The cerulean warbler is largely an insectivorous feeder, gleaning insects from the dense foliage of deciduous vegetation. This species tends to forage high in the canopy gleaning slowly from the tree trunks outward. The primary food items taken include adult and larval butterflies and moths, beetles, weevils, fireflies, ants, and leafhoppers.

Life History:
Beginning in late March the cerulean warbler leaves its wintering grounds in South America. It usually arrives in West Virginia around the last week of April. The female builds a compact cup-shaped nest high in the canopy, usually on a horizontal limb. Two to five gray to greenish-white, small, brown spotted eggs are laid and incubated by the female.  The onset of brooding and incubation and the length of incubation are poorly understood. The young are cared for and fed by both the male and female. The cerulean warbler begins its fall migration south leaving West Virginia throughout the month of August. This species arrives on the wintering grounds during late August and September.

Threats and Prospects:
There are several factors that are contributing to the decline of the cerulean warbler. Among these are loss of habitat on the species’ breeding and wintering grounds due to logging and agricultural clearing, loss of habitat on important migratory stopover locations, and habitat fragmentation of existing contiguous forest. Also, changes in forestry practices allowing for shorter stand rotation and even-aged stand management eliminate the large tall trees that cerulean warblers require, thus limiting potential habitat. It is also thought that brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) may play a role. 

Even though cerulean warbler populations are in decline, West Virginia is a stronghold for this species. Some of the highest breeding densities occur in the Mountain State. At the present Cerulean Warblers are an abundant breeding bird in much of West Virginia but habitat loss here and throughout its range are causes for concern.  

What you can do to help:
If you observe cerulean warblers during the breeding season, record the location, forest type, prominent tree and understory species, and any nesting behavior and report this information to the WVDNR Wildlife Diversity Program at (304)-637-0245 or write Cerulean Warbler Report, P.O. Box 67, Elkins, WV 26241.

Produced by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Section, Wildlife Diversity Program.

20 February 2003

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