Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Beloved Michigan songbird makes an epic comeback

a bird (black feathers, yellow chest, perched on a branch
A male Kirtland’s warbler in a jack pine stand in Michigan. USDA Forest Service photo.

MICHIGAN — On October 8, one of America’s greatest conservation success stories celebrated a milestone. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Margaret Everson announced that, thanks to 50 years of dedicated recovery efforts by a broad array of partners, the Kirtland’s warbler will be removed from the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. The species restoration is a significant conservation success and further demonstrates the value of the Endangered Species Act.

Everson was joined by Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Director Dan Eichinger, Acting Region 9 Deputy Regional Forester Steve Kuennen, Huron-Manistee National Forest Supervisor Leslie Auriemmo, and other conservation partners in Lansing, Michigan to celebrate the success.

No other bird species has been so close to extinction and then fully recovered. The Kirtland’s warbler lives in northern Michigan’s jack pine forests where the management of Michigan forests has played a key role in saving the songbird. Even more remarkable is how recovery was achieved: through a true collaboration of state, federal and non-government organizations, researchers and industry.

The Kirtland’s warbler nests on the ground in large areas of young jack pine forest, but decades of fire suppression had allowed the jack pine trees to become too old for the birds to use. At the same time, warbler nests were parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird, a bird that lays its eggs in other bird’s nests; Kirtland’s warblers and other species rear cowbird young at the expense of their own.

In response, the USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other partners formed the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team. The team collaborated for decades to foster Kirtland’s warbler recovery.

Efforts to recover the Kirtland’s warbler in Michigan’s Huron-Manistee National Forests started in the early 1960s. The first area to be managed for Kirtland’s warbler breeding habitat on the forest was dedicated in 1963 by then Forest Service Chief Edward P. Cliff. In 1975, only 20 singing males were located on the forest. In the mid-80s the population began to climb as a result of the Mack Lake Fire and an increase in jack pine forest management. The Huron-Manistee National Forests develop about 1,000 acres of breeding habitat per year. Over the past 30 years, the Huron-Manistee National Forests have developed approximately 30,000 acres of breeding habitat.

Hiawatha National Forest, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, manages approximately 600 acres of breeding habitat per year. Both, Ottawa National Forest and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest have also developed habitat but have not yet sustained Kirtland’s warbler breeding pairs.

The Kirtland’s warbler census is an integral part of the conservation team’s efforts. Initiated in 1951, the census was conducted annually between 1971 and 2017, when it was moved to a biennial schedule. In 2019, 1,032 singing males were counted on the Huron-Manistee National Forests during the biennial census.

Three men and one woman standing in front of a photo of a bird
Speakers at Kirtland warbler’s delisting event, from left: Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance Chairman Bill Rapai, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Margaret Everson, Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Director Dan Eichinger, and Acting Region 9 Deputy Regional Forester Steve Kuennen. USDA Forest Service photo.