A Growing Population

Michigan’s rarest bird rises from endangered species status
Kirtland’s warbler
Photos courtesy of William Rapai

Like the mythical phoenix, the Kirtland’s warbler, a gray and yellow songbird, rises from the ashes. And that’s its greatest obstacle.

The bird, measuring barely 6 inches, is one of the rarest in North America. It’s found from Oscoda northwest to Kalkaska, as Michigan is its home.

Describing the Kirtland’s warbler habitat as “extreme” and “harsh,” Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance board member William Rapai says the area that’s home to the bird is unique, as it was created by “outwashed plains left behind from a glacier withdrawing about 10,000 years ago.”

Kirtland’s warbler
The pretty Kirtland’s warbler.

The birds nest on the ground under jack pines that must be less than 20 years old, at which time they drop lower branches. In the past, the necessity of finding younger trees left Kirtland’s warblers reliant on fire to clear aged trees and allow renewal through new growth. Today, they’re reliant on humans to manage the habitat.

Long ago, nature took care of the bird; lightning strikes
set the trees ablaze, ensuring new growth. Later, indigenous populations were the first humans to interact with the bird — but in the Kirtland’s warblers’ favor. They lit fires that burned uncontrolled, eliminating older trees and clearing the land to
attract wildlife they could hunt.

It was more recent human populations that worked against the brilliantly hued bird. As mankind’s efforts to suppress fires escalated, the cycle of old trees out/new trees in was interrupted. The result? Kirtland’s warblers nearly became extinct.

In 1957, conservation efforts were taken to restore the species’ population. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 put the Kirtland’s warbler on a protected list, where it remained until 2019. According to Rapai, as of 2023 there were about 2,000 pairs of Kirtland’s warblers. Of those, about five or six pairs are in Ontario, and 20 are in Wisconsin. The rest live in northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Kirtland’s warbler
These birds prefer to nest in jack pine trees that must be younger than 20 years old. The rare, yellow-breasted bird measures barely 6 inches tall.

The population increase is largely due to the combined efforts of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Natural Resources, which works to plant and sustain jack pine forests.

“Everything in that jack pine ecosystem is reliant on fire. Fire belongs there, and if we can’t let fire do what it does naturally, we humans have to manage the ecosystem for the Kirtland’s warbler,” says Rapai, the author of the Michigan Notable book, “The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It.” 

Plan It!

Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance
Check site for May 25-June 30 birding tours.

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