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Kirtland's Warbler Life History

 

A male Kirtland’s feeds a fledgling brown-headed cowbird. The nest of this Kirtland’s was parasitized by a cowbird.

A male Kirtland’s feeds a fledgling brown-headed cowbird. The nest of this Kirtland’s was parasitized by a cowbird.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Hannah

Status: Endangered, first listed March 11, 1967

Habitat: Breeds in jack pine

Breeding range: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario
Wintering range: Predominately The Bahamas

 

Kirtland’s warblers require large stands of young, dense jack pine forest at least 80 acres in size, but they prefer stands of 300 to 400 acres, or larger. They build their nests on the groundand the jack pines must be just the right height (about 5 to 16 feet tall) and the trees must be spaced to let sunlight through to the ground. Sunlight helps keep lower tree branches alive and bushy, hiding the nest beneath them. When the trees grow larger their upper branches block the sun, causing the lower branches to die. Grasses and other plants also become less dense. The warblers then must find other nesting areas.

 

After nesting and raising their young, Kirtland's warblers migrate to the Bahamas where they winter in scrub thickets.

 

Primarily insect eaters, Kirtland’s warblers forage for insects and larvae near the ground and in lower parts of pines and oaks. They also eat blueberries.

 

Fires play an important role in forest ecosystems. For example, without fire, jack pine cones do not completely release their seeds. Suppressing forest fires prevented the natural establishment of new jack pine stands. Since Kirtland’s warblers will only nest in stands of young jack pines, the population dwindled dramatically before scientists realized that there is a role for fire in forest ecology and in the Kirtland’s warbler life history.

 

Under natural conditions, Kirtland's warbler nesting habitat is produced by fire. Fire has always occurred in forests and jack pine trees are dependent on fire. Heat from fire is needed to open their cones to release seeds. Fire also removes plants that compete with jack pines for forest space and creates a bed of ash that helps the new seeds grow. Fires before the 20th century were more widespread in the jack pine plains of Michigan and created large nesting areas for the Kirtland's warbler. Modern habitat management is aimed at mimicking post-fire conditions. Prescribed fire, clearcutting, replanting, and cowbird control are some of the measures taken to restore Kirtland's warblers and their habitat.

 

Until 1995 Kirtland’s warblers had only been known to nest in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Today, they also nest in the Upper Peninsula, and, since 2007, they have nested in Wisconsin and Canada.

 

Learn More

Additional details about the Kirtland's warbler life history and population

 

USFWS Fact Sheet

Michigan Natural Features Inventory Fact Sheet

Wisconsin DNR Fact Sheet Adobe PDF Icon

Population Census Results

Species Profile

Recovery Plan Adobe PDF Icon

 


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