VCU Rice Center

Photo of Prothonotary Warbler

Long-term studies of the Prothonotary Warbler along the lower James River

A team made up of VCU faculty, staff, students and collaborators are conducting a long-term study of the breeding biology of Prothonotary Warblers along the lower James River. 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 migrant songbird that breeds throughout the eastern U.S. and southern Canada.

The Prothonotary Warbler is the only eastern warbler to nest in tree cavities. The availability of suitable nesting holes is the most critical habitat requirement for the breeding success of this species. Water is another critical habitat feature. Prothonotary Warblers prefer lowland forests near standing water for nesting sites. Their populations are declining over much of their historic breeding range in response to degradation and destruction of lowland forests and associated wetlands. In Virginia they are most commonly found nesting along tidal tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.

Prothonotary Warbler at nest boxThis project, originally established in 1987 and led for many years by VCU faculty members Charles and Leann Blem of the Department of Biology, was undertaken for two reasons: 1) the need for conservation measures to increase the breeding success of the local population and 2) to study reproductive activities and success over an extended period of time. More than 600 nest boxes have been installed in appropriate habitats in the tidal freshwater region of the James River, including in the vicinity of the Rice Center.

The boxes have been monitored annually during the warbler’s breeding period and provide invaluable information on the breeding biology of this species. During the life of the project more than 26,000 Prothonotary Warblers have been raised in these boxes, likely being responsible for Virginia being one of the few states where the population of this species is increasing. More than 100 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members and volunteers have participated in this ongoing research, which has produced numerous peer-reviewed publications and has received national scientific and media attention.

Besides the long-term studies on nesting success, a number of new researchers from VCU and other institutions have launched studies related to population genetics, the ecology of disease, migration ecology, the role of song and plumage in reproductive fitness and success, and the impact of climate change on diet and timing of reproductive activity.

From Chesapeake Bay to Panama Bay and Back – Cross Cultural Connections Supporting Sustainable Communities

Migratory birds provide a vital link connecting people, cultures and places. Preservation of critical bird habitat is often important to the environmental, economic and cultural well-being of communities. Long-term conservation of these habitats requires cross-cultural cooperation and understanding. To that end, VCU’s Prothonotary Warbler team recently received funding for a project entitled 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. The W&M - VCU Center for Conservation Biology also has joined the effort to increase the scope of the project to include migratory shorebirds as well as migrant songbirds.

The primary objective of this project is to promote a partnership between VCU and Audubon Society partners in Panama through exchange of skills and resources designed to promote conservation of local landscapes — and the ecological benefits they provide — to both birds and people. We will be assisting in the development and implementation of a social marketing campaign targeting communities in both regions by providing curriculum materials and equipment for environmental education activities in Panamanian and Richmond area middle schools. In addition a team of VCU students and faculty, as well as Audubon staff and volunteers, will be traveling to Panama to provide training and technical expertise in monitoring and conservation of Neotropical migrant songbirds and shorebirds in Panama.

Short film: From Bay to Bay