The previous blog posting was one that shared sobering facts about the state of birds in this country. I ended it with the reminder that we as a country have taken action when needed, to save some charismatic bird species. This time I am happy to report some more good news related to a much smaller and less well known, but equally important bird. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced that the Kirtland’s Warbler is no longer on the Endangered
Species List. It was listed in 1967 and eventually hit a record low of just 167 pairs in 1987. The problem for this beautiful yellow bellied songbird is its very particular choice of nesting habitat. It only likes Jack Pine trees of a certain age (between 4 and 20 years) and currently they (the birds) are just found in Michigan, parts of Wisconsin and Ontario.
In 2009 my husband and I went to Michigan to work on a book project and since we are dedicated bird watchers we definitely wanted to see the Kirtland’s Warbler territory. We were not especially hopeful of actually seeing one of the birds since there were so few and the forests were thick. Based on information from local bird enthusiasts we were directed to an area in the Huron National Forest where a singing male had been heard and seen. There were metal signs on either side of the road indicating this was Kirtland Warbler habitat.
We drove slowly down the two lane road with the windows open, hoping to hear its song. At one point Mike thought he’d heard something that sounded about right, so we pulled off on the side of the road, got out of the car and listened. Sure enough, there was a male singing up ahead and across the road. This seemed too good to be true, but we slowly walked ahead and amazingly, with binoculars raised, we spotted this rare bird on some branches at the edge of the forest. We stared at it for a long time, trying to print the image on our brains – this was truly a ‘lifer’ for us.
I have never been a fan of Jack Pines. Our property and the State Forest next to us are heavily made up of this
species. It is not an attractive pine and it tends to break and fall in storms. Our wood’s is still littered with their remains after a 1992 ice storm, but if I knew that Kirtland’s Warblers would come here to nest, I would plant more of them.
The reason the birds were disappearing in their preferred forest lands is because of a change in forest management. Before settlement, wildfires burned through forests thick with Jack Pine. Fire opened the pine cones and new trees emerged. Human settlement brought fire suppression, and the trees aged beyond their suitability for warbler nests, which surprisingly are built on the ground. In addition to the loss of suitable habitat, the warblers were beset by the arrival of Brown-headed Cowbirds. These birds lay their eggs in the nests of other species and the young cowbirds out compete the smaller nestlings and thus, the population of warblers declined.
The successful recovery of this warbler is due to cooperative efforts by government agencies, conservation groups,
timber interests and private landowners. In this situation proper management required large scale logging of old trees and replanting of new ones to mimic the natural processes of this particular ecosystem. It also included controlling the Cowbird population with traps and euthanasia; an unfortunate necessity if the warblers were to really be given a true chance of recovery.
These combined efforts allowed the population of Kirtland’s Warblers to rebound to an estimated 2,300 pairs today, which is in excess of the recovery goals. Even better is the news that the species continues to increase and expand its range. This is a celebratory event, not just for birders, but for all who care about wildlife and our ability to co-exist.
The official management plan will include monitoring of the birds for at least 12 years, and be dependent upon all the groups who came together initially to save the species. There is also the issue of their winter territory – exclusively, the Bahamas. I learned this after recent Hurricane Dorian demolished some of the islands. Scientists are cautiously optimistic that the birds will find enough intact habitat to keep the population stable. It’s a big world and one small bird shows us how it is all interconnected and dependent on our attention and care.
By Kate Crowley