Prothonotary warblers

VCU researchers and partners study the breeding biology of the prothonotary warbler along the lower James River, using the project and its data to explore population genetics, disease and migration ecology, the role of song and plumage in reproductive fitness, and the impact of climate change on diet and timing of breeding.

Once known as the golden swamp warbler due to its striking yellow color and preference for flooded forests, the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a Neotropical songbird that migrates to breeding grounds in the eastern U.S. and southern Canada in the summer.

The prothonotary warbler is the only eastern warbler to nest in tree cavities. These warblers prefer lowland forests near standing water for nesting sites. The decline of this habitat is the most critical threat to the species’ breeding success and has contributed to the prothonotary’s decline over much of its historic breeding range.

VCU biology faculty Charles and Leann Blem started the project in 1987, and led it for many years. The project has since installed more than 600 nesting boxes in tidal freshwater regions of the James River. It remains a mix of conservation and research. Boxes provide the local warblers breeding habitat and researchers a way to study the bird’s reproductive success over an extended period of time.

Project boxes have raised more than 26,000 prothonotary warblers and helped make Virginia one of the few states with a growing number of this species. Data gathered during breeding season provides invaluable information on the breeding biology of this species. More than 100 students, faculty and volunteers have participated in this ongoing research, which has generated numerous peer-reviewed publications and national scientific and media attention.

Team Warbler: a Panama connection

Migratory birds link people, cultures and places. Preservation of critical bird habitat often proves important to the environmental, economic and cultural well-being of communities.

VCU’s researchers received funding to exchange skills and resources with Audubon Society partners in Panama, where prothonotary warblers migrate in the fall. The cooperation will help researchers better understand the bird’s full life-cycle, and aid the conservation of its habitat.

This collaborative effort is Team Warbler from Chesapeake Bay to Panama Bay and Back — Cross Cultural Connections Supporting Sustainable Communities.

Community partners in this effort include Audubon’s International Alliances Program, Virginia IBA program, Panama Audubon and local middle schools. 

Team Warbler assisted the development and implementation of a social marketing campaign that targeted communities in both regions and provided curriculum materials for environmental education activities in Panamanian and Richmond, Virginia, middle schools.

VCU and Audubon researchers travel to Panama to share their training and technical expertise on monitoring and conserving Neotropical migrant songbirds and shorebirds in Panama.