Kirtland’s Warbler Focus Shifts From ‘Recovery to Conservation’

Federal officials announced last fall that Michigan’s rarest warbler, the Kirtland’s warbler, was removed from the federal Endangered Species List.
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Federal officials announced last fall that Michigan’s rarest warbler, the Kirtland’s warbler, was removed from the federal Endangered Species List. The tiny songbird that nests in northern Lower Michigan jack pine forests and winters in the Bahamas is no longer endangered; it no longer needs federal protection, though a continuing state private/public conservation partnership has been formed to assure it continues to thrive.

That is excellent news for the warbler, which some are lobbying to make our next state bird, replacing the robin. With its blue-gray back, black stripes and yellow breast, and now an icon of conservation success in Michigan, the Kirtland’s warbler was among the first animals listed under the 1967 Endangered Species Preservation Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It officially was declared “endangered” in 1973 when the federal Endangered Species Act was signed into law. The Michigan Endangered Species Act was created in 1974, the first year the Kirtland’s warbler census hit an all-time low of 174 singing males (pairs).

The census dropped again in 1987 before steadily climbing to more than 1,000 pairs in 2001. Today, the upper Midwest population is estimated at 2,000 pairs or more — double the recovery goal set for the species.

The effort to recover the Kirtland’s warbler is a shining example of what it takes to save an imperiled species,” FWS Principal Deputy Director Margaret Everson said in a press release. “Truly dedicated partners have worked together for decades to recover this songbird. I thank them for their efforts and applaud this historic conservation success. 

Once only found in the northern Lower Peninsula, the warbler’s range has expanded to parts of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and Ontario. Most, however, still are found in the Lower Peninsula. The population’s growth and recovery resulted from coordinated efforts by the Michigan DNR, U.S. Forest Service and conservation groups like the Michigan Audubon Society, among others.

Their two-prong recovery strategy focused on creating and managing needed critical habitat and reducing losses by parasitism. Kirtland’s warblers nest only in younger jack pines, which hide their ground nests under lower branches. Those low branches disappear on older trees, so thousands of acres of jack pine forest have to be managed to provide that condition. Brown-headed cowbirds also were trapped and removed from those areas, thus reducing a form of parasitism. Cowbirds lay their eggs in warbler’s nests, and the larger cowbird chicks are more aggressive and outcompete for food provided by the adult warbler who unwittingly raises the cowbirds, as their own smaller offspring die.

While the Kirtland’s warbler is no longer endangered, it’s not quite out of the woods either.

The focus has shifted from recovery to conservation; everyone has been preparing for this eventual delisting,” said Bill Rapai when delisting was proposed.

He is chairman of the nonprofit Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance that is working on its future conservation. Rapai called the warbler a conservation-reliant species, meaning ongoing jack pine management and cowbird control will continue to be needed. Money is being raised to pay for work.

Readers who are interested in supporting that effort and participating in the next chapters of the Kirtland’s warbler story can find out more at kirtlandswarbler.org.


Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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