Celebrated for their ability to soar into the sky and travel wherever they please, birds are a symbol of freedom for many. The golden-cheeked warbler is no exception. This small bird escapes to tropical climates in Mexico and central America during the winter and flies back to nest within the Ashe juniper and oak forests of Edwards Plateau and Hill Country woodlands in central Texas each spring.
The males usually arrive before the females to begin scoping out their territory. Once the females arrive, the courting and mating begins. Golden-cheeked warblers nest only during this period, making all offspring native Texans by birth. Female golden-cheeked warblers take advantage of the cedar bark found only on old-growth Ashe juniper trees to build their nests. They strip this bark to create the base structure and then decorate with eye-catching materials like cobwebs and tufts of animal fur. Golden-cheeked warblers hunt for insects like caterpillars and spiders in the tree canopies and can be spotted by the bright yellow markings on their cheeks and head. The range for a single male individual is generally around three to six acres, which he fiercely defends against any other competitors.
This range makes the land requirements for the tiny songbird abundantly clear, and yet between 1985 and 2016, urban sprawl and development destroyed almost half the golden-cheeked warbler’s high priority habitat. Through fragmentation and loss of habitat, golden-cheeked warblers are now left more vulnerable to predators, and they also struggle to find enough food to support themselves.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1990 as an emergency action because of “ongoing and imminent habitat destruction,” and indicated that the golden-cheeked warbler warranted consideration for more long-term federal protection. But in 2015 a petition was filed by a coalition including the General Land Office for the State of Texas to delist the golden-cheeked warbler. This complaint originated from land developers who wanted to expand industries into high-quality warbler habitat within the Hill Country. The 1990 ruling explicitly recognized that the golden-cheeked warbler has incredibly specific habitat requirements, but landowners began to protest about property restrictions. The petition was overturned, and in 2019 a judge ruled that the golden-cheeked warbler should remain on the ESA as the petitioner’s complaints failed to show that the service had not adequately considered evidence presented to delist.
Although the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1964 also protects the golden-cheeked warbler, helping to alleviate challenges presented by highly mobile bird species during their seasonal travels, the Trump administration launched repeated attacks to weaken its legal influence. The move was intended to end enforcement of the act against oil spills and other industry actions that kill birds by stating incidental take regulations would no longer apply. President Biden formally dropped an appeal of a federal district court ruling that rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to strip protections for birds, yet the industry disregard for these protections still exists. This act also didn’t prevent the damage done to golden-cheeked warbler habitat between 1950 and 1970, when Texas launched a juniper eradication program to create more farmland and open spaces. Many people also believed that juniper was an invasive species that sapped scarce water from the soil. Environmental groups still struggle to dispel these myths.
Both the ESA and MBTA are specialized to address different areas of concern for the golden-cheeked warbler, which is why it is so important that they are used in combination to protect the birds’ physical health and prevent the degradation of habitat.
To make matters worse, last year Kinder Morgan installed a gas pipeline across the middle of the Edwards Plateau region, slicing through important warbler habitat even during nesting season. The Permian Highway Pipeline, as it was named, lacked adequate environmental assessments on how this may negatively impact historical Ashe juniper forests. To avoid limitations or delays the company successfully argued that as an intrastate pipeline; it did not have to comply with federal regulation. There is still controversy over whether the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) should have been enforced because the pipeline does carry gas from New Mexico. The Kinder Morgan pipeline began operation in early 2021, cutting under rivers and streams, affecting limestone water reserves and vibrant Ashe juniper woodland in addition to posing threats to dense urban areas. Any sort of malfunction, leak or explosion in these areas would have catastrophic effects, poisoning wild spaces and impacting drinking water for millions of people in the busy urban corridor from Austin to San Antonio.
Continued urban and industry growth in the Texas Hill Country could not only mark the end of the golden-cheeked warbler, but it could also affect the many other endangered species that depend on the region’s flowing aquifers. This includes the Texas blind salamander, tobusch fishhook cactus and recently delisted black-capped vireo. The region is a biodiversity hotspot because of its woodlands, rivers and streams, underground cave systems and aquifers. Rich in variety and color, it also has one of the highest densities of shrub-eating animals anywhere in the United States. This entire ecosystem is intricately connected, meaning the removal of a species like ashe juniper tree would create a ripple of devastating consequences. Their removal would impact the warblers who feed mostly on insects, thus helping to keep caterpillars, spiders and beetle populations under control. Birds are also important pollinator species that spread seeds throughout their environment. These collective interactions all help to balance the overall ecosystem, but if we completely eliminate the woodland habitat and the presence of an animal like the golden-cheeked warbler it may cause other species relationships to become unbalanced and potentially unstable. It takes thousands of years to create an intricately connected web of species in a biological community, yet humans are able to destroy these relationships within a single generation, with the goal of short-term profit above all else.
The golden-cheeked warbler deserves a spot in the juniper-oak forests for many years to come and is essential to preserve the health and productivity of these natural systems. This tiny songbird species has become an iconic fixture in the imagery of the Texas Hill Country, as locals delight in spotting their bright colors and cheerful whistles in the shade of their treetop homes. Defenders has a field office in Austin to work closely with all stakeholders to conserve breeding habitat and apply best practices for smart urban growth that allows these species to live alongside our increasing human population. We can help strengthen the protections for these birds before they soar toward southern Mexico and Central America each year, and we will always fight to ensure they have a safe home to return to.