After years of population declines, the Kirtland’s warbler -- often called Michigan’s Bird of Fire -- is rising from the ashes of near-extinction.
By the early 1970s, there were fewer than 200 known pairs of the small songbird in existence. But decades of partnerships among federal and state agencies, industry and conservation groups has led to population rebounds and a proposal to remove the bird from federal protection.
The key to recovery was controlling brown-headed cowbirds and the long-term conservation of the warbler’s jack pine forest habitat. Cowbirds lay their eggs in warbler nests causing the warbler chicks to die while the unknowing warbler parents raise the cowbird imposters. Strategic cowbird removal through partnerships with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture - Wildlife Services was crucial. But there were still problems with the bird’s habitat.
Jack pine requires fire to open its cones and spread its seeds -- hence the nickname, “bird of fire.” But fire suppression policies last century prevented the natural growth of new forest. Since the warbler will only nest in young jack pine stands, the population dwindled dramatically. Kirtland’s warblers require large stands of young, dense jack pine forest -- 19-22 acres per pair. Land management techniques that replicate wild fire conditions led to much-needed new habitat growth.
Once one of America’s rarest birds, the warbler’s population has exploded -- reaching more than 1,000 pairs by 2001. Today, there are estimated to be over 2,000 pairs, which doubled the initial recovery goal. The bird’s range continues to expand beyond the northern Lower Peninsula of the Wolverine state to areas in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario.
The Kirtland’s warbler was one of the first species listed as endangered. Today it serves as a testament to what can be accomplished through partnership and dedication. Learn more about this species at www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/birds/Kirtland.
Photo of Kirtland's warbler by Vince Cavalieri, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.