Paying it Forward with the Kirtland’s Warbler

When it comes to nature, how can we pay it forward? You know the concept: someone does a good deed for you, or pays off your debt, and you reciprocate by extending your generosity and good will to the next person in line. But hasn’t nature also done us many a good deed? And don’t we all have a debt to the environment, for at least clean air and water, and a whole lot more?  If you are looking to pay any of that forward, you might help out a small yellow bird in the middle of Michigan, like I did in early June of 2014

Update 2020: In the fall of 2019, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Kirtland’s Warbler from the list of endangered species, the goal of the Endangered Species Act. This was a cause for celebration by the many agencies, organizations, and volunteers who worked for years to help the Kirtland’s Warbler recover from near extinction. However, the work is not done, as the songbird depends on people to maintain its unique habitat, control threats from predators, and take other conservation actions.

The Kirtland’s Warbler appreciates a very particular ecosystem favored by few: small scrubby areas with sandy or rocky soils. It spends the winter in dense shrubbery on a few underdeveloped islands in the Bahamas, and in the spring it migrates to the mostly flat jack pine forests between Grayling and Mio in central Michigan. The song bird likes to breed only in stands of young jack pines mixed with oak and cherry. This niche behavior was almost the undoing of this yellow-breasted bird with the bright song.


Historically, before loggers and settlers pushed into the northern Great Lakes, the Kirtland’s Warbler had plenty of new growth areas to choose from for its summer home.  Fires regularly burned across the sandy outwash plains left from the glaciers. Jack pine, whose cones only release their seeds after being exposed to the high heat of a fire, is the pioneer species of these ravaged areas. The Kirtland’s would skip around Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario to build their nest on the sand amongst the new growth forests.

However, following the clear-cut logging of the north woods, settlers moved in, roads and towns were built, and forest fires became a scourge on the human inhabited land.  Smokey the Bear moved in too, and fire suppression and a quick response to any blaze became the celebrated norm. Especially in areas not well suited to farming, like the plains and low hills stretching back from the Au Sable River, a mature forest grew up to offer sites for the “up north” cabin. While good news for vacationers, hunters and anglers, the Kirtland’s Warbler was out of a home.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, part of the great awakening of environmental policy, and it came just in time for the Kirtland’s Warbler.  In 1971, the third census of the rare bird had found only 201 singing male birds, a 60 percent drop in 10 years. The new federal legislation gave formal recognition to the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team–a group of government, scientific, and environmental organizations–and gave them the legal authority and financial resources to work to prevent the loss of the species. Decades of research and effort have paid off, and the species has recovered. The censuses in both 2012 and 2013 have counted more than 2,000 singing males.

People — scientists, birdwatchers, government wildlife workers, donors, and other enthusiasts of nature–have saved the Kirtland’s Warbler, at least for the time being. Two intensive efforts have made the difference. First, the US Forest Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) actively manages public lands to create appropriate breeding habitat.  Research, trial and error, and careful observation led scientists to understand that the Warbler needs large areas of young jack pine forests, mixed with other small trees and including hidden openings. Foresters have logged, cleared, or burned–and then re-planted– sandy soil areas in both the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan to replicate the natural landscape that existed before fires were prevented.

Secondly, cowbirds have been controlled in the breeding area. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, a strategy that evolved as the birds followed bison herds in the Great Plains.  However, plowed fields and animal agriculture brought the cowbirds to the Great Lakes and in northern Michigan they found the Kirtland’s Warblers’ nests an easy target. Now, the invasive cowbirds are trapped and warbler eggs can hatch and the young grow up without the competition of the larger cowbirds.

A mutually beneficial relationship exists between people and the Kirtland’s Warbler, or KW as many call it. The bird now depends on people to maintain its summer home.  And people are eager to see this bird that nests in a very particular place in the Great Lakes ecosystem. They come from throughout Michigan, the United States, and the world in the early summer to discover for themselves this bird with the yellow breast and the lyrical song.  And a passionate number return year after year to see, to hear, to count, to study, and to save this bird.  Why?

I have had the chance three times to go into the field with these people whose connection to nature comes through a rare and beautiful bird. Some appreciate the scientific challenge of learning all about one unique species; others find through the bird a special connection to a Michigan place of pine trees and cold-water rivers; and many are serious birders, and they travel to north central Michigan in hopes of adding a KW to their life list of birds observed. I take any excuse to get out.

A “Big” Day.  Most recently I ventured up a sandy road east of Grayling with the accomplished birder Greg Miller and several other friends–new and old–of the Kirtland’s Warber.  Greg was one of the subjects of the book and movie “The Big Year” about a quest to see more than 700 species of birds in the US in one year. He is one of the premier birders in the world, and has a long list of birds to choose as favorites, but the Kirtland’s holds a special place for him.  His father brought him to the Grayling area when he was an eleven year-old boy, and the experience of finding the rare KW set him on the passionate pursuit that now defines his life.

Several decades later, the day was cool and breezy as Greg Miller accompanied a small group of experienced and novice birders scouting through jack pines not much taller than we were.  We could hear, but not see, several males staking out their territory.  The small, closely spaced pine trees gave our outing the feel of a Christmas tree hunt, though without the snow, and we could not see far into the dense growth. We stayed on the two-track, as we did not want to disturb the Kirtland’s Warbler, nor inadvertently step on its nest, on the ground amidst the vegetation.

It was tantalizing. We alternately kneeled and stood on tip-toe, leaning from left to right, all in an attempt to get a clear view of the small bird flitting and singing among the young pine trees. Nothing,  and then not even a song.  We moved on, stopping and searching several times without a successful sighting.  Finally, we got a view of the bright yellow breast of a singing male amongst the shrubbery, and fellow bird-watchers almost elbowed in for a view. Then, one of the proud birds popped up to a dead tree branch, perched, and tilted up his head to warble. Cameras clicked, birders old and new sighed appreciatively, and we were transformed.


A Conservation-Reliant Species. The experience of seeing a bird for the first time in the wild is always special, but this achievement came from more than just our skill, the guidance of an expert birder, or luck. The landscape of the breeding Kirtland’s Warbler exists only because of the concentrated, sustained, and scientifically-informed efforts of many people and agencies. Its winter home, in the Bahamas, has only recently been pinpointed, thanks to the efforts of The Nature Conservancy.  In both places, locals have been engaged and educated to appreciate the rarity of this bird.

The Kirtland’s Warbler story is one of success, and now the scientists who have carefully studied, and the conservationists who have tended, the species are turning their attention to create natural conditions that will favor the sustained livelihood of the bird.  They also are working on building the organization and financial stability to ensure the KW will not have to rely on annual appropriations from Washington and elsewhere. The future certainly looks better than the past, but ongoing stewardship will be required.

The fate of the Kirtland’s Warbler depends on humans to maintain a proper habitat, and to control competitive cowbirds. If these efforts ceased today, the population would likely again decline.  It is now what the experts call a “conservation-reliant” species.  Humans were responsible for the demise of the Kirtland’s Warbler; now we are responsible to be stewards of the places the bird calls home.

The Passenger Pigeon.  The history of our relationship with nature can be measured in how we treat birds. As the Great Lakes were settled, humans observed flocks of passenger pigeons that numbered in the tens of millions. These social birds nested in the nut-rich hardwood forests that covered much of Michigan and surrounding areas; they were tasty to eat and easy to hunt, and they were no match for the technological prowess of humanity. In the 19th century, the passenger pigeon went from symbol of the abundance of nature to the victim of unchecked human consumption. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in a zoo in Ohio.

Sadly, the relationship between humans and birds has too often followed the path of ignorance and greed. However, in the hundred years since the demise of the passenger pigeon, Americans have redefined their relationship with birds and nature. The death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, may have sparked the first widespread recognition that the actions of people could lead to the extinction of a species and the collapse of natural systems. It came as the work of early naturalists like John James Audubon was translated into the active conservation movement that Teddy Roosevelt had championed.  In 1918, the Migratory Bird Act was passed, and in subsequent years, wildlife management became the scientific task of federal and state governments; land was set aside and hunting was regulated. The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, was the policy culmination of this conservation ethic.

The story of the Kirtland’s Warbler reminds us that human interaction with nature does not always result in extinction and loss. Rather, the resurgence of this small yellow bird demonstrates what we can achieve with the knowledge gained from science and the conservation efforts of both public agencies and private actors. Human actions have resulted in changed landscapes in most of the world; in one area of northern Michigan, we have cared for the landscape in a way to not only benefit us, but to also to preserve a home for one of our natural neighbors.

 To Learn More visit these sites
The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, of which I am a board member, acts as a force for the conservation of this bird and its habitats.
The Kirtland’s Warbler Breeding Range Conservation Plan – a recently released draft from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Greg Miller‘s thoughts on the Kirtland’s Warbler
To visit and see the Kirtland’s Warbler, you can go on an Audobon Society Tour.

Thanks to Anna Owens for supporting my enthusiasm for birds, and for taking the photos that documented this wonderful outing.


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