Group seeks Kirtland warbler’s delisting

A conservation organization serving Northeast Michigan is working to de-list a rare bird from the federal endangered species list, and to jump-start an effort to ensure its population continues to grow.

Huron Pines is working on a three-pronged approach to ensuring Kirtland’s warblers have a future after they’re de-listed, Kirtland’s Warbler Coordinator Abigail Ertel said. The bird’s population has grown considerably over the last 30 years, and Huron Pines has received a $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to establish a stakeholder’s group, coordinate partnerships for habitat management and start a fundraising campaign to support ongoing conservation efforts.

“We’ve been working in Northeast Michigan for 40 years, which is the heart of Kirtland’s warbler nesting area,” she said. “We have a good connection to conservation work, the people and the communities, so we’re excited to be leading something of this magnitude in an area where the bird returns every year.”

This stakeholder’s group first met at the beginning of February, Ertel said. They’ll become the decision-making entity for how to ensure the survival of the conservation-reliant species. In doing so, they’ll create a model for other endangered species of what needs to be in place to ensure they can be de-listed.

Kirtland’s warblers nest almost exclusively in Michigan, with a few nesting in Wisconsin and Ontario, Ertel said. Their nests can be found in several counties in the northern Lower Peninsula, including, Alcona, Montmorency, Oscoda and Presque Isle counties. The bird has been on the federal endangered species list since the list was created in 1973.

The birds are very selective about where they nest, according to information from the Department of Natural Resources. They nest on the ground under the branches of jack pine trees five to 20 years old. Once the lower branches start to die off, they move on. While wildfires had replenished stands of young jack pine, modern fire suppression efforts decreased the amount of warbler nesting habitat. Starting in 1957, the DNR and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service started to manage areas of state and national forest as nesting areas. These areas are clear-cut, burned and replanted on a rotational basis.

Along with managing jack pine stands, the DNR also has trapped brown-headed cowbirds in Kirtland’s warbler nesting areas starting in 1972, according to information from the department. These birds negatively impact warbler populations by laying eggs in the warbler’s nest. Their chicks hatch first, and out-compete warbler chicks. The DNR worked with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service and the Michigan Audubon Society to trap the birds.

Thanks to these conservation efforts, the Kirtland’s warbler population has risen from 167 breeding pairs in the 1980s to more than 2,000 this year, Ertel said.

“It’s a pretty big success story for the species and the people who have been involved in the conservation work,” she said.

Delisting the warbler is necessary because other species are in need of the time and resources being devoted to them, Ertel said. At the same time, Huron Pines and others involved in the project want to ensure there’s a support network in place to continuing survival of the species.

“The Michigan DNR via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service have really laid an excellent framework and foundation to launch this initiative from,” she said. “Huron Pines is really excited coming in to help lead this initiative. It’s happening because of the great work and collaboration of these partners to date.”

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5688.