Kirtlandii Impact - Conservation Spotlight: Kirtland's Warbler Alliance

Who (Intro): The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance is the leading advocacy group for the conservation of the Kirtland’s Warbler. It is an affiliate of Huron Pines, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to conserving natural resources in Northeast Michigan.

What (Mission/Goals): The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance aims to raise awareness and garner support for the conservation programs necessary to sustain the Kirtland’s Warbler and the Jack Pine forests in which it breeds.

Jack Pine Habitat

Where (Location): Huron Pines is headquartered in Gaylord Michigan but their conservation efforts on behalf of the Kirtland’s Warbler extend throughout the Kirtland's Warbler breeding, migratory, and wintering ranges.

When (Key Dates): The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance was founded in 2013. Every year the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance holds two Keystone Events in May/Early June:  Jack Pine Planting Day and the Kirtland’s Warbler Home Opener.

Why (Importance): The Kirtland’s Warbler is one of North America’s rarest and most vulnerable birds. Through most of the 1970s and 1980s the breeding population was estimated at under 500, a dire enough number to get it listed as an Endangered Species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Fortunately, conservationists were able to identify and combat the two primary threats to the species – a lack of suitable breeding habitat (remedied by clear-cutting and replanting of Jack Pine forest) and Brown-Headed Cowbird nest parasitism (remedied by setting traps). Today the Kirtland’s Warbler population is estimated to be at over 4,500 and in May 2018 a proposal was submitted to remove the species from the Endangered Species list, citing successful recovery efforts. While the recovery efforts and list downgrades are encouraging, the Kirtland’s Warbler remains a threatened species and if removed from the Endangered List will lose key sources of federal protection and funding. Which means organizations like the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance will assume the responsibility of protecting the species once it is delisted.

How (Action): To achieve its conservation goals the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance partners with “state, federal, and local conservation stakeholders to identify and move forward strategies to secure long-term sustainably for the Kirtland’s Warbler regardless of listing status.” Some of these organizations include: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Michigan Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy. Objectives include “public-private funding and land management partnerships,” which the conservation of the Kirtland’s Warbler will rely upon once it loses federal protection status.

Interview with William Rapai – Chairman of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance and author of The Kirtland's Warbler: The Story of a Bird's Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It

Kirtlandii: Does the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance support the delisting proposal? And if so why?

William Rapai: Yes, the Alliance supports delisting for several reasons:

  1. The Kirtland’s Warbler population will always be small because the warbler has such persnickety nesting habits. Unlike a robin or cardinal that will nest pretty much anywhere, the Kirtland’s Warbler wants to build its nest on sandy soil under the overlapping branches of young jack or red pine trees. That combination is found in only a few places in North America.
  2. The conservation plan written for the Kirtland’s Warbler called for 1,000 nesting pairs. The population is now more than double that. I know 2,000 pairs doesn’t seem like a lot, but all things considered, the population is considered stable and healthy for the amount of habitat that’s available.
  3. The threat from the Brown-headed Cowbird—a nest parasite—has been diminished through trapping and a general population decline across the eastern U.S. There is less pressure from the cowbird on the Kirtland’s Warbler population now than at any time since the late 19th century.
  4. We have a pretty good grasp on the warbler’s nesting requirements and have been making a build-to-order habitat that appears to be much to the warbler’s liking.
  5. It’s not like we are cutting the lifeline. The Endangered Species Act requires the population be closely monitored post-delisting and includes a provision for emergency reinstatement if the population should suddenly decline.
  6. The Kirtland’s Warbler has sucked up most all of the Michigan’s Endangered Species funding from the federal government. Meanwhile there are other plants and animals that need help. The Kirtland’s Warbler is iconic but let’s not be selfish here.

Kirtlandii: What is the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance doing to ensure the species will continue to recover and prosper if delisting occurs?

William Rapai: We are working to create a new model of endangered species conservation. Many species that come off the ESA are able to prosper without significant additional human intervention. The Kirtland’s Warbler is conservation reliant. Historically, new habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler was created when massive wildfires ran across the northern Michigan outwash plains. That habitat is fire dependent; everything is built to burn and everything relies on having the habitat renewed by fire. Unfortunately, there are now too many people and too many towns and structures to allow fire to be a natural part of the landscape. Therefore we need to cut mature jack pines and replant new ones on a regular cycle. That has to be done by humans, and it costs money.

The job of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance is to help raise money for and administer a $4 million endowment that will help to fund continuing on-the-ground conservation work. The conservation world is watching our success closely so it’s critically important that we succeed!

Kirtlandii: What is the biggest challenge facing the Kirtland’s Warbler today and what do you foresee as the biggest challenge 10 years from now?

William Rapai: Funding. Plain and simple.

Members of the Kirtland’s Warbler Conservation Team have just finished creating work plans for continuing conservation efforts on the breeding grounds in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, and for maintaining and creating new habitat on the wintering grounds in the Bahamas, and for creating education and outreach plans. Unfortunately, none of it is free.

Kirtlandii: In the earlier years, what were the primary challenges conservationists faced in their attempts to save the species?

William Rapai: There were many, but first and foremost was understanding the Kirtland’s Warbler’s nesting needs. The warbler prefers to build its nest on sandy soil underneath the overlapping branches of young jack pine trees. Early attempts to create habitat failed because we packed the young trees so close together. The birds rejected it because it failed to look anything like a natural landscape.

You might be surprised by this, but a wildfire is a random thing. It doesn’t burn everything and it doesn’t burn straight. It will thoroughly burn some areas and leave some strips untouched. The heat from the fire causes the cones on a jack pine tree to open and the seeds are then distributed into the carbon-rich soil in a random manner. So biologists hit the jackpot when they decided to mimic the random burn of a wildfire and created a new planting scheme that left regular openings across the landscape. Those openings allowed wild blueberry (a food source) and other plants to thrive. The warblers loved it and moved right in.

Even though we think of the jack pine as being critical to the Kirtland’s Warbler, but other trees in the habitat—pin oak, northern dwarf cherry, and others—are also important. These deciduous trees will die in a fire, but they will still be standing. These trees are critical because they have leafless branches that give the male warbler a high place to sit and sing to declare his territory and attract a mate. These “snags” are critical to getting the habitat right.

Kirtlandii: The book summary mentions complex governmental relationships in regard to the conservation process – can you expand on that here?

William Rapai: Certainly. Federal law gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction over all endangered species. However, the core of the Kirtland’s Warbler population is on land that belongs to the Michigan DNR and the U.S. Forest Service. (The land is publicly owned because the soil is so poor that people are unable to farm it. Even though the land was farmed following late 19th century lumbering, it was eventually abandoned and reverted back to the state for tax reasons. Some of that land was purchased by the federal government for the Huron National Forest.)

The tone for cooperation was set in the early 1970s, when the head of the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team made it clear that cooperation was critical and there would be no turf wars. That ethic has been respected over several decades.

Now that the population is growing and can be found in Ontario and mostly on private land in Wisconsin, add the Wisconsin DNR and Canadian Wildlife Services to the mix. And as biologists look over the horizon at protecting the wintering grounds, the Bahamas National Trust is playing a bigger role in the conversations. Still, cooperation and collaboration remain the guiding ethic and that’s pretty damn refreshing!

Kirtlandii: Any thoughts on the Kirtland’s’ Warbler that was spotted in Central Park this past May and the frenzy it created?

William Rapai: Every NYC birder who saw that individual should send a letter of thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan DNR for the excellent job they have done acting as wise stewards of the jack pine habitat over the past 50 years. Then they should send a letter to their member of Congress in support of the Endangered Species Act. Seriously.

Kirtlandii: How famous is the Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan?

William Rapai: It’s pretty well known, but it should be—it needs to be—our state bird!

Kirtlandii: What can readers do to help the Kirtland’s Warbler and support the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance?

William Rapai: In a word, donate. Unfortunately there’s not much an individual can do because habitat is managed on such a large scale across from Ontario to Wisconsin.

Donations are critically important because the Kirtland’s Warbler is a conservation-reliant species. It takes money to manage the habitat. And because we’ve taken fire out of the habitat, we humans have to be responsible for creating new habitat. To pay for that on-the-ground conservation work, we are building a $4-million endowment and are asking people to make small donations—$50 to $100. Please visit for more information. Thank you!

Description of The Kirtland's Warbler: The Story of a Bird's Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It

This book looks at the Kirtland’s warbler and wildlife conservation in a way that no other book has. It looks back on the history of this unique bird, examines the people and policies that kept the warbler from extinction, explores the cult of personality that surrounds it, and examines the challenges of the future—all through the eyes of the people who have acted so passionately on its behalf.

The story of the Kirtland’s warbler is a story of complex relationships between the bird and its environment, the humans who interact with it, and the complex government policies that affect it. And now, just when it appears that the Kirtland’s warbler has recovered for good, a change in its status may send the warbler’s population into a downward spiral once again.

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Photo Credit: USFWS