Michigan’s Bird of Fire: Saving the Kirtland’s Warbler

Michigan Bird of Fire Kirtlands Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler, photo by James Fox

On June 3-4, northeast Michigan will celebrate a Michigan conservation success story with the annual Kirtland’s Warbler Weekend that includes an Au Sable River Kayak Tour. You can also lend a hand this Saturday with the annual jack pine planting day through the Kirtland’s Warbler Initiative!

The Detroit News has a nice editorial by Michael Bean, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior about how determination saved Michigan’s “Bird of Fire”, the Kirtland’s Warbler:

More than 60 years ago, scientists realized that the Kirtland’s warbler was in trouble. A 1951 census found fewer than 500 breeding pairs. The bird was among the first species ever listed as endangered and was the first species to ever have a “recovery team.”

Kirtland’s warblers will only nest in young jack pine forest. Jack pine requires fire to open its cones and spread its seeds — hence the nickname, “bird of fire.” Fire suppression policies last century led to the decline of the Kirtland’s warbler, as did parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds. The recovery team had to figure out a way to overcome these challenges to save the species.

Since 1974, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team has worked to save the species, even when the outlook for recovery was bleak. The recovery team brought together federal, state, academic, nonprofit, and even international partners.

Today, scientists estimate there are more than 4,000 Kirtland’s warblers in Michigan. The population has more than doubled its recovery goal, so the recovery team is no longer needed. Through years of hard work the partners figured out how to provide the conditions necessary for the warblers to survive, and the birds have flourished.

View James’ photo background big and see more in his Grayling 2009 slideshow.

Kirtland’s Warbler on the Rebound

Kirtland Warbler at Tawas Point, 5-15-2010

Kirtland Warbler at Tawas Point, 5-15-2010, photo by John Britt

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources completed their annual June survey of Kirtland’s warbler, one of the rarest members of the wood warbler family that nests almost exclusively in Michigan’s northern Lower and Upper peninsulas, with a few locations in Wisconsin and the province of Ontario. They explain:

“We have a great group of DNR, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff members, as well as volunteers, who are trudging through young, thick jack pine in the early morning hours,” said Department of Natural Resources wildlife supervisor Keith Kintigh. “The reward is getting to hear that singing male Kirtland’s warbler, which is the way we actually census the population.”

The Kirtland’s warbler census is a tool managers use to compare population numbers relative to recovery goals by listening for the male’s song. Kirtland’s warbler numbers had been very low, under 200 nesting pairs, in the mid-1980s. Michigan became the focus for habitat management, since it has been a primary location for the birds’ reproduction.

Kirtland’s warblers spend eight months wintering in the Bahamas. The males arrive back in Michigan between May 3 and May 20, a few days ahead of the females. The males establish and defend territories and then court the females when they arrive. The males’ song is loud, yet low-pitched, ending with an upward inflection – easily recognized to identify the presence of a Kirtland’s warbler.

Additionally, the presence or absence of Kirtland’s warblers determines if protection of that area is needed and allows evaluation of different habitat management techniques. The habitat requirements for Kirtland’s warbler are very specific; they prefer large blocks of young jack pine, usually hundreds of acres in size. The Kirtland’s warbler is a ground-nester, often using the living branches of 5- to 20-foot-tall jack pine trees to conceal their nests, so jack pine trees must be actively managed. Large areas of sandy soils are planted with jack pine and then cut decades later, on specific intervals, to achieve the perfect-aged stands.

Lots more about this rare songbird, including census results that show a steadily increasing population on the DNR’s Kirtland’s Warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii) page.

View John’s photo from May of 2010 background big and see more in his Animals & Wildlife slideshow.