Avian Expert Articles

Kirtland’s Warbler Gets Some Habitat Help

Photo courtesy of Joel Trick

With so many birds falling prey to a variety of external threats that make it difficult to nest and breed, it’s no wonder that many of them inevitably end up on an endangered list. A sobering fact hit the news not long ago about a near 30% loss of North American birds since 1970. However, with every bird that makes an endangered list, there is a multitude of conservation efforts to save such birds from going extinct. Some have been successful. The California condor is having a resurgence of population that promises to delist the bird in the future if it continues to positively respond to efforts. The Kakapo parrot has rebounded from near extinction. Another developing success story is that of the Kirtland’s warbler.

The Kirtland’s warbler is so named because of its identification by Dr. Jared Kirtland in 1851. Eventually, more was discovered about the elusive bird and where it nested after the turn of the 20th century. However, by 1967, due to ongoing destruction of the bird’s forest habitats and the unfortunate interaction with the brown-headed cowbird, the Kirtland’s warbler population declined seriously. By 1973, the bird was designated as an endangered species, with only about 200 pairs left. Today, there are more than 2,300 pairs, made possible by the combined efforts of the Endangered Species List and efforts by conservation teams.

An Ally In Nest Wars

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Michigan Audubon Society (and other important and noteworthy agencies) worked to help eliminate an overwhelming cowbird threat by controlling all cowbird actions from the areas needed to sustain and encourage the Kirtland’s warbler’s continued existence. It was the female cowbird’s innate intent to steal established nesting from the warbler by laying their own eggs in the warbler’s nest and destroying warbler eggs in the process. The Kirtland’s warbler was unable to develop defenses to this “nest parasitism” as had other species, and consistently lost young hatchlings to the aggressive practice.

The conservation effort, termed the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team, set aside a massive 190,000 acres of Michigan forestry specifically for the bird. Of that number, a total of 38,000 acres must be consistently recreated to appeal to the bird. The warbler cannot nest in forests older than 22 years, which necessitates that departments clear out 4,000 acres yearly and replace with 2-year-old jack pine trees to eventually become home to the bird.

The Kirtland’s warbler is a migratory bird (considered one of America’s rarest migratory birds still). They are found in the Upper and Lower Peninsula areas, with some now found in Wisconsin and Canada. In migration, the birds (sensibly) fly to the Bahamas to winter. The bird is even properly observed and cared for in the Bahamas during their stay. These beautifully colored birds are approximately 6 inches in height.

Today, the Kirtland’s warbler is now delisted as endangered but is cautiously listed as Near Threatened. If left alone, the cowbird could regain control of warbler nests and once again encourage the reduction in warbler population leading to probable extinction.

This is positive news in a world often beset by declining populations in all things. It shows that with proper dedication, we as conservators can help to retain the world as we know it for future generations.

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