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Making plans for the future of the Kirtland's warbler in Michigan

Joel Trick

The Kirtland’s warbler is starting its migration from Michigan to the Caribbean.

By the time the song birds return to their Michigan breeding grounds next year, the Kirtland’s warbler may no longer be listed as an endangered species.

Lower Michigan has the largest population of Kirtland’s warblers.  The song bird’s habitat covers roughly 19 counties.   The Kirtland’s warbler also has small pocket populations in parts of Wisconsin, Ontario and the Upper Peninsula. 

The Kirtland’s warbler has been listed as an endangered species since 1966.   The bird still faces multiple threats, from the loss of habitat to invasive species.   Federal and state wildlife agencies, along with non-profit groups, have worked to ease the warbler back from the brink. The song bird’s population has slowly rebuilt to a level where wildlife officials are ready to delist it.

Jonathan Lutz is the executive director of the Michigan Audubon Society.  

He says if the songbird is delisted, the Kirtland’s warblers Michigan breeding grounds still need to be managed.  

The bird prefers to nest in younger Jack pines.  Lutz says in the past, periodic wildfires ensured the forests of northern Lower Michigan had plenty of younger trees.  But human efforts to reduce the number of forest fires interfered with that process. 

The Kirtland’s warbler must also deal with an invasive threat to its young.   The Brown-headed Cowbird lays its own eggs in the warbler’s nest.   The warbler ends up feeding the intruder to the detriment of its own hatchlings.

The Audubon Society’s Jonathan Lutz says these issues must be addressed as part of the delisting.

“When we talk about delisting, the anxiety is tied to ‘Who’s going to do the work?’ and, ‘Who’s going to pay for it?” says Lutz. 

State and federal wildlife officials are taking public input on the Kirtland’s warbler management plan this month. A public hearing on the plan will be held July 9th in Grayling.   Public comments on the plan are also being accepted by the Department of Natural Resources through July 28th

The final plan will affect more than just the birds. 

The Audubon Society’s Jonathan Lutz says thousands of recreational bird watchers every year come to Michigan to see the Kirtland’s warbler.

“We have participants who have come from all 50 states and a half dozen or more foreign countries specifically to see this bird,” says Lutz.   “For recreational bird watchers (the Kirtland’s warbler) is generally regarded in the top ten ‘must –see’ species in your lifetime.”   

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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