How a tiny bird’s survival depends on wood fires – the Kirtland’s Warbler

The rare Kirtland’s Warbler inhabits the young jack pine forests of Michigan. It has been facing two serious threats which have caused the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as an endangered one in 1967.

The warblers of North America New York,D. Appleton & Company,1907.

The warblers of North America
New York,D. Appleton & Company,1907.

The two main threats to the rare bird are:

  1. The fact that it nests on the ground and only beneath young jack pine trees, which are only 5 to 20 feet tall and between 6 and 22 years of age. They need about eight acres of young jack pine woods to nest there and 5 times more to raise their young. The reason why there are less such young patches of jack pine trees is because of the serious measures taken to prevent and stop forest fires. Yes, forest fires can be dangerous and can harm the environment and people, but they are important for the ecosystem as well. Forest fires cause the jack pines to release their seeds, and also make space for the new jack pine trees. With jack pine forests getting older, the population of the Kirtland’s Warbler has been decreasing.
  2. The other threat to the Kirtland’s warbler is the brown-headed cowbird, which is a parasitic bird. This bird has a unique approach to raising its young. It lays its egg in the Kirtland’s Warbler nest and removes at least one of the warble’s eggs. The brown-headed cowbird leaves its egg to be taken care of by the “foster parents”. The cowbird’s egg hatches earlier than those of the warbler, and the small cowbird is bigger and thus gets a bigger chance of getting fed or pushing out the other chicks from the nest. This caused a rapid decline in the population of Kirtland’s warbler in the 1970’s.

What is being done?
In 1972, the US Fish and Wildlife Service together with the US Forest Service and Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and other local organizations began a program for removing cowbirds, which continues to this day.

Also, in 1973 the first endangered species recovery team was established – the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team consisting of national, local organization representatives along with citizens of Michigan. The team established the steps which needed to be taken in order to save the endangered bird, and recommendations were made that 38,000 acres of young jack pine must be available at all times for the Kirtland’s warblers to be able to reproduce. This means that every year 4,000 acres of the jack pine forest is cut and in its place, two year old seedlings are being planted, so that the wood is always less than 22 years old.
The wood from the jack pine trees cut is used, and nothing is wasted.
The actions and efforts which so many people, the local and national authorities to save a small bird from becoming extinct is simply amazing. Hopefully the forest management and the cowbird management will continue in the future!

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