What do you say when someone tells you they will be spending the summer in the Lower Michigan Peninsula? If you are a birder, you say “Kirtland’s Warbler!” likely scaring the poor non-birder telling you her vacation plans. Yes, the warbler formerly known as Dendroica kirtlandii, now Setophaga kirtlandii, is one of those birds that make birders’ hearts pulse quicker and their legs churn faster. Look what happened when the bird made the first of three appearances at the Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh!
A lovely looking and distinctive sounding bird (so they say, I sadly have not seen one…yet), the Kirtland’s Warbler can only be found during its breeding season in Jack Pine forests 5 to 20 years old in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Recently it has also been documented as breeding in Wisconsin, Ontario, and the Upper Michigan Peninsula, but those birds are few and not always accessible. So if you want to see a Kirtland’s Warbler, you go to Michigan in May or June. And, while friends have told that me that I can go to the Bahamas and easily see the warbler in January, it turns out that is not true, the bird is elusive in its winter habitat as well (which is not Jack Pine, by the way). And it isn’t just jack pines of a certain age that are required for nesting. The bird needs space, lots of space, and a few deciduous trees to perch on for singing, and jack pines with branches about 5 feet above the ground, no more, no less, and Grayling sand.
This is why 1,000 to 3,000 birders turned out to see the Magee Marsh Kirtland’s Warbler, possibly the fussiest bird in the world. It’s the warbler that is often the last unchecked species on birders’ life lists and, whether you list or not, for most of us observing it is a once in a lifetime experience. At several points in recent history, Kirtland’s Warbler appeared to be on the verge of extinction. Less than 200 singing males were found in the 1987 census, and this was 20 years after it had been placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list. The good news is that Kirtland’s Warbler numbers are up, 1,828 singing males counted in the 2011 census.
The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It by William Rapai tells the story behind this conservation success story, and it’s a good one. Most birders know that the bird has been threatened by both the loss of jack pine habitat and Brown-headed Cowbird nest parasitism. But, it took naturalists and scientists a long time to get to the point where they understood these problems. For many years after the first documented bird was shot and its skin donated to the Smithsonian Institute, people had no idea where the bird nested, how it migrated, where it wintered, what it ate. Once a body of research was established and the bird was declared endangered, it took many more years of experimentation, political maneuvering, conflicts with the National Guard, and some tragic fires to establish what is now acclaimed as a model conservation project. Along the way, Kirtland’s Warbler attracted the devotion and ignited the passions of some pretty incredible people, including a famous murderer. There has been a lot written about Kirtland’s Warbler, it is one of the most studied birds in the world, but, as far as I know this is the first book that tells its many-faceted story as an adventure tale that can be enjoyed by all of us. (And that includes my friend Lynn Jackson, who was one of the fortunate birders who saw her life Kirtland’s Warbler at Magee Marsh last month and who graciously allowed me to use the photograph below.)
The Kirtland’s Warbler is divided into three sections: The Past, The Present, The Future. Most of the chapters are in the first two sections; the future is a brief, open question. I very much enjoyed the first section, which relates the history of the bird and its relationship with us, humans, from its discovery in 1851 up to the fateful Lake Mack fire and its aftermath in the 1980’s. Charles Pease shot the bird in northeastern Ohio, and gave it to his father-in-law, Jared Kirtland, one of those 19th century men who was a master multitasker–physician, horticulturist, legislator, zoologist. Kirtland, in turn, gave the skin to Dr. Spencer F. Baird, who took it to his home base, the Smithsonian, and wrote it up, dedicating to the bird to Dr. Kirtland. A nest wasn’t found until 1903, which set off a craze for Kirtland’s Warbler skins, nests, and eggs. Rapai reprints an editorial from the 1904 Bulletin of the Michigan Ornithological Club that will remind many birders of more recent discussions on the Internet concerning the publication of owl and bird nest locations, its language only a little bit more civilized!
One of the strange things about the Kirtland’s Warbler story is the participation of Nathan Leopold, Jr. a young brilliant scientist who observed and filmed the bird in its nesting habitat shortly after the nest was discovered. Leopold and his friend Richard Loeb are two of the most infamous murderers in U.S. history; they killed a young boy just to prove they could commit the perfect crime and were the models for the murderers in Hitchcock’s film Rope. Rapai is clearly fascinated by Leopold’s life, and frankly, so was I. Other actors in Kirtland’s Warbler history include Lawrence Walkinshaw, a dentist who was the first person to band the bird, Harold Mayfield, a human resources executive who retired early, became president of three major ornithological societies, and authored the definitive book about Kirtland’s Warbler, and Andrew Berger, a researcher who tried to raise the warblers in his home, building aviary extensions. The story of how we learned about the Kirtland’s Warbler is not your ordinary and-then-we-discovered-this-fact narrative; the elusive warbler attracted strong personalities with ideas that were brilliant, crazy, and miscalculated deadends.
Sadly, one of those miscalculations led to the Mack Lake fire of 1980, a prescribed burn which went out of control and became an historic wildfire, burning private property and the life of a young biologist, volunteering that day as a firefighter. Rapai devotes two chapters to the fire, illustrating, like a good reporter, both the details of the event itself and the bad and good that came out of it. The bad included the ill-will of the community towards the Kirtland’s Warbler and all conservation efforts. It was the end of prescribed burns as part of the Kirtland’s Warbler recovery plan. The good included the development of a new, more open, conservation strategy that embraced communication and education of the community. Previously, even researchers had problems getting access to nesting Kirtland’s Warblers. Now there are volunteer guides, tours and a local festival. Also, the eventual recovery of the area as prime nesting habitat made the Kirtland’s Warbler recovery team realize that they had been thinking too small, that the bird needed LOTS of room in which to nest.
The second section of the book, The Present, describes the current state of research on the Kirtland’s Warbler in the form of you-are-there stories about projects investigating the bird’s nesting success requirements and diet, both in Michigan and the Bahamas. Rapai also accompanies an experienced volunteer on the annual Kirtland’s Warbler Census. These chapters read more like self-contained articles than the first section, though in the end it all ties together. The material on Bermuda is particularly engrossing, illustrating what it is like to be a researcher in a remote area of the seemingly-glamorous Bahamas, studying birds and counting berries at sites called the Goat Farm and Dead Dog Road. There are also the larger issues of negotiating with the Bermuda government and its landowners for access. The chapters weave together the specific threads and personalities involved in establishing and continuing multi-year research projects through anecdotes and observation; the politics of conservation become alive when we learn about tarantula encounters, bullfinches in the mist nets, and a young Bermudan conservationist inspired by his work with the Kirtland’s Warbler project.
William Rapai (pictured left) is a newspaper reporter and editor who is clearly also a birder. I say this not only because he is president of the Grosse Pointe Audubon Society and because his official bio says he “has traveled across North America and to Cuba, Iceland, and Thailand to view and research birds”. It’s clear that this is a writing project performed with avian devotion and love. In fact, my main criticism of The Kirtland’s Warbler is that we don’t hear enough about how the book itself was written. Rapai tracked down a number of current and historical players in the Kirtland’s Warbler story, travelling across the U.S. and Bermuda to interview them and get a first-hand view of research projects. This is a story I would have enjoyed reading about it in the Introduction. I imagine that Rapai’s reportorial training dictated that he stay in the background. But, birding is a personal passion no matter how large the canvas and I think that in this case telling his own story and the book’s background would have enriched the tale.
The Kirtland’s Warbler is being published at a key point in the bird’s history, as illustrated in the third section, The Future. The good news is, the fight to save the warbler has been successful. The bad news is, the fight to save the bird has been successful. Once the number of singing male Kirtland Warblers surpassed 1,000, we had a population that met its conservation goal. The warbler is on the road to being delisted from the Endangered Species List. This means, of course, that the very resources responsible for the warblers’ existence, especially funds for cowbird trapping, will no longer be available. Get ready to contribute to the Kirtland Warbler’s Trust Fund. The human-controlled future certainly looks a lot more positive than the threat from the invasives as we learn here about the positive steps being taken by stakeholder agencies to continue maintaining nesting habitat. The trust fund is a real possibility, part of a plan outlined by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Forest Service.
So, this is a continuing story with a tentative happy ending. And, this is a good book that I think 10,000 Birds readers will enjoy. It takes significant, potentially difficult material–ornithological and biological studies, the politics of conservation policy–and turns it into enjoyable reading. With its story-oriented style, this is excellent summer reading material. If, like me (or beat writer Dale Forbes), you haven’t seen Kirtland’s Warbler yet, reading this book is great preparation. If you have seen the bird (and I’m thinking of all you Biggest Week in American Birding birders), learning its history will help you appreciate how unique that experience was. In fact, even if you have no desire to ever see a Kirtland’s Warbler, this is a book worth reading for its presentation of how extraordinary efforts and mutual cooperation amongst scientists, government officials, and citizens can make a difference, can create change. The book is not available in paperback, but the hard cover edition is very reasonably priced, especially through the usual online channels. I actually read most of it on my Kindle because I was traveling, and that worked out well because the illustrations are in black-and-white.
Let me know if you have seen the Kirtland’s Warbler, if you were part of the Magee Marsh experience or if you made the trip to Mio, and what that birding trip was like. Those of us who contemplate the trip need to know how to do it right. And, if you have strong feelings about the delisting of the Kirtland’s Warbler from the Endangered Species List, this is a good place to let it out. Cowbird Trapping Forever could be the next big birding cause and best-selling bumper sticker!
The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Save it.
By William Rapai.
The University of Michigan Press, 2012.
216 pp., illus. 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.9 in.
ISBN-10: 047211803, ISBN-13: 978-0472118038
Kindle edition, $15.49.
Book cover courtesy of University of Michigan Press.
Photograph of the author courtesy of Julia Rapai and University of Michigan Press.
Photograph of Kirtland’s Warbler at Magee Marsh by Lynn C. Jackson.