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Bringing a Bird Back from the Brink of Extinction

Posted by Larry Moore, Office of Communication, USDA Forest Service in Forestry
Jul 29, 2021
The Kirtland’s warbler
The Kirtland’s warbler, once at the brink of extinction, is now thriving. (Photo courtesy Sawyer Frederick, Warbler Census Team volunteer)

You probably have not heard of the Kirtland’s warbler. It is a songbird that migrates between breeding habitat in northern Michigan and its winter range in the Bahamas.

Kirtland’s warblers nest only in large areas of dense young jack pine historically produced by wildfire. Decades of wildfire suppression have caused this breeding habitat to decline. The intrusion of the predatory nest parasite brown-headed cowbird also contributed to the significant decrease in Kirtland’s warbler nest productivity.

“When I began work on the Huron-Manistee National Forests in 1981, only 232 pairs of Kirtland’s warblers existed in the world,” said Phil Huber, forest biologist. “Five years later that number had dropped to only 167 pairs.”

Although there were existing efforts to recover the species that dated to the 1950s, they were not enough to keep it from being listed once the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973. This set into motion a cooperative effort to protect Kirtland’s warbler.

The Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team, in which Huber played a critical role, was created in 1973. The team was made up of representatives from federal and state agencies, as well as interested citizens, and dedicated to saving the warbler from extinction.

To help restore habitat, the USDA Forest Service and Michigan Department of Natural Resources now establish new habitat by harvesting older jack pine and then planting jack pine seedlings. But in 1980, it was a wildfire that provided 10,000 acres of new habitat. This new habitat led to population increase in the next decade.

"The count of singing males began increasing in the 1990s due to the significant increase in available habitat,” Huber said. “In 2001, the population exceeded the goal of 1,000 pairs for the first time.”

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing Kirtland’s warbler from the endangered species list. Much of this success is credited to the dedication and leadership of people like Phil Huber. In recognition of his work, he was presented with the Lloyd W. Swift, Sr. Award this year in Washington, DC. The award recognizes lifetime dedication, commitment and leadership in wildlife and fisheries management.

Despite this recognition, Huber recognizes this success story is the result of hundreds of dedicated people committed to recovering the Kirtland’s warbler over more than 60 years.

“This award is really about great teamwork — biologists, foresters, researchers and volunteers — making recovery possible,” Huber said.

Phil Huber on the Mio Ranger District, Huron-Manistee National Forest, conducting census of singing males
Phil Huber on the Mio Ranger District, Huron-Manistee National Forest, conducting census of singing males during the 2019 Kirtland Warbler Census. (Photo courtesy Sawyer Frederick, Warbler Census Team volunteer)
Category/Topic: Forestry