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Kirtland’s Warblers ReboundThe Power of Partnership Propels Michigan Warbler Toward Recovery
by Georgia Parham
Photo Credit: Joel Trick, USFWS
One hundred sixty-seven - that’s the total number of male Kirtland’s warblers (Dendroica kirtlandii) found in 1974, just after the Endangered Species Act was signed into law. A handful of Kirtland’s warblers in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula represented the earth’s last remaining population. This iconic songbird, the quarry of bird-watchers worldwide, was sliding toward extinction as its habitat receded and nonnative, parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) encroached.
The odds were stacked against the Kirtland’s warbler. These birds are habitat specialists, relying on young jack pine forests for nesting. Historically, large and frequent wildfires kept jack pine forests suitable for Kirtland’s warblers. With the advent of fire suppression, jack pine stands matured and nesting habitat disappeared.
The warblers that remained faced another threat: the parasitic brown-headed cowbird. Cowbirds lay eggs in other birds’ nests, often removing a host egg and leaving the naïve hosts to incubate and care for the young cowbirds. The cowbird egg typically hatches one to two days before the others, getting a head start on growth. The young cowbird is bigger and able to claim more food than other nestlings, and may crowd other baby birds out of the nest.
The combination of habitat loss, precariously low numbers, and the expansion of cowbirds spelled disaster for the Kirtland’s warbler. Biologists began tracking Kirtland’s warbler numbers in the 1950s and saw the population drop steadily, from around 502 singing males in 1961 to the all-time low in 1974.
In response to the warbler’s decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Michigan Audubon Society began an intensive habitat management and cowbird removal program that remains in place today. As a result, the Kirtland’s warbler population is increasing as more warbler chicks are surviving to maturity.
Adaptive jack pine management, cowbird control, monitoring, public education, and research have been very effective in managing Kirtland’s warblers. The species has responded vigorously to recovery actions and now nests in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ontario and Wisconsin. Numbers have topped recovery goals since 2001, with a record-breaking count of 1,832 singing males during the 2011 census conducted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service.
Now the focus is on the final steps to remove the Kirtland’s warbler from the list of endangered species. Because the Kirtland’s warbler is a conservation-reliant species, long-term management will be needed to ensure the species’ survival. Once again, the partnership has stepped up to the task. In May 2011, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) pledging to continue conservation efforts for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler regardless of the warbler’s status under the Endangered Species Act. This agreement is a major step toward eventually removing the Kirtland’s warbler from the list of endangered and threatened species.
Without the partnership approach to saving the Kirtland’s warbler, it is doubtful that removing the species from federal protection would be on the agenda for the species. The Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Kirtland Community College, California University of Pennsylvania, Camp Grayling, Michigan Audubon Society and many other partners have been on a nearly four-decade journey to recover the Kirtland’s warbler that serves as a model for endangered species conservation.
And their efforts have done more than save a species from extinction; the program has created habitat for many other species, including white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda), indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), and brown-thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). Communities in the warbler’s range have embraced the species and the efforts to save it, and now people from around the world visit Michigan to get a glimpse of the Kirtland’s warbler. With continued cooperation and partnership, generations to come will have the same opportunity.
Georgia Parham, a public affairs officer in the Service’s Bloomington Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-334-4261 ext. 1203.
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