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

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

by William Rapai


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472035762
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 06/14/2013
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

William Rapai is president of Grosse Pointe Audubon Society and has traveled across North America and to Cuba, Iceland, and Thailand to view and research birds. He was an award-winning reporter and editor for the Grand Forks Herald, the Detroit Free Press, and the Boston Globe. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

The Kirtland's Warbler

The Story of a Bird's Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It
By William Rapai


Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11803-8

Chapter One

The Jack-Pine Bird

For Alexander W. Blain Jr., the editor of the Bulletin of the Michigan Ornithological Club, the news from northern Michigan was a "Stop the presses!" moment.

Blain had already sent the June 1903 issue of the publication to the printers when he received word from Norman Wood, a taxidermist at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History: the Kirtland's warbler was nesting in Michigan, and he had proof. The news was so big that Blain recalled the publication from the printer to append a two-paragraph note to the last page.

Just after this issue had gone to press Mr. Wood returned home from his trip north in quest of the Kirtland's Warbler with very gratifying success, having obtained a fine series of skins, male, female, nestlings, full-fledged young, nest and eggs.

Mr. Wood also obtained some two dozen photographs of the birds (in life) and their nests. The material of this trip prepared by Mr. Wood and illustrated by the photographs, will be given to our readers in the third issue. The editor also hopes to be able to give a colored plate of the egg. There shall also be articles on the rare and interesting bird by Chas. A. Adams, A.B. Covert and Earl H. Frothingham.

Blain knew well that Wood's discovery was important. Fifty-two years had passed since Charles Pease shot his Kirtland's warbler near Cleveland, and the species was still an ornithological enigma. The question of where the Kirtland's warbler spent its winters had effectively been settled as collectors regularly took birds out of the Bahamas. But bigger, more important questions remained to be answered. What was the Kirtland's warbler's primary habitat? What was its migration route? And, most important, where did it nest?

Speculation in ornithological circles had become something of a parlor game. Some argued that the bird nested in northern Lower Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Others argued for Michigan's Upper Peninsula. One ornithologist speculated that it was farther north still, in Canada near Hudson Bay, based on a single record of a Kirtland's warbler being killed when it ran into a lighthouse in Lake Huron.

In 1898, Frank Chapman, who is today considered the dean of American ornithologists, tried to bring what little was known about the Kirtland's warbler into perspective. In a brief article in the Auk, the prestigious journal of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), Chapman lamented that in the previous twenty years ornithologists had been able to discover the range of nearly every warbler species in North America. The lone exception, he wrote, was the Kirtland's warbler.

Chapman laid out the few spring migration records from Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, and Virginia and concluded, "These brief notes constitute our sole knowledge of the habits of this species, whose nest and eggs, owing to its rarity and the remoteness of its probable breeding range will doubtless remain long unknown."

So, on June 29, 1903, with great anticipation, Wood boarded a train bound for Roscommon, Michigan, on the Toledo, Ann Arbor and Northern Railroad, knowing that he could be on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Wood went north in pursuit of the Kirtland's warbler after Earl Frothingham, a University of Michigan graduate student and museum employee, returned from a fishing trip in northeastern Michigan's Oscoda County with a gift: the corpse of an unknown species of bird. Frothingham reported seeing and hearing several of these unknown birds along the north side of the Au Sable River, and since he was unfamiliar with it he had his fishing companion shoot one for the museum. Wood identified the skin as that of a male Kirtland's warbler and immediately went to museum curator Charles Adams, who, in Wood's words, "also saw the importance of the discovery, and the necessity of sending a man to the spot at once."

By today's standards, Wood's account of his trip to find the nesting area of the Kirtland's warbler is comical. Articles for modern peer-reviewed journals are almost reptilian in their cold-blooded and emotionless pursuit of fact. Wood's article, on the other hand, is a scientific paper, yes, but it's also a quirky travelogue and an expression of joyous emotion. Wood's account, printed in the March 1904 issue of the Bulletin, describes his travels by train to Roscommon ("I arrived at this old lumber town at 4 A.M. June 30th, after a tedious night's travel, due to two changes of cars"), by boat ("This country is wild and very interesting, and the songs of many birds cheered me, as with notebook in hand I floated along"), and on foot, describing the wildlife and geographical features he saw along the way.

At sunrise on July 2, Wood struck out on foot to find the spot where Frothingham had found the Kirtland's warbler. After crossing the Au Sable River and climbing a steep slope that opened into a young jack pine forest, he wrote:

[S]uddenly I heard a new song, loud, clear, joyous and full of sweet melody. This song may be described as follows: weche chee-chee-chee-chee-r-r-r.... I thought it a Kirtland, although I had never before heard its song. I heard this song repeatedly at intervals of about 30 seconds, and from different directions.... I repeatedly tried to go where he sang last, and finally saw him flit from a bush to a yellow oak scrub and light about three feet above the ground. As I watched him he sat quite erect, threw forward his head and the wonderful song rang out. This song was remarkable because of its volume and rich melody. I was sure this was the bird for which I was in search; but in order to make certain the identity I shot it.

Wood spent the next five days searching the area for a nest without luck. On July 8, he was riding in a horse-drawn carriage when he saw a Kirtland's warbler fly to a dead tree on the side of the road.

This bird had a worm in his mouth, so I concluded that his nest was near by, and that he would go to it with the worm. I went to the side of a large stub, and while I was watching, saw this male assume the erect singing position, throw forward his head and try to sing, still holding the worm in his mouth.... Again he sang and wagged his tail and then dove down, but this time two rods to the west of the tree. I started to go there, when just south of the tree I flushed the female from the ground and after a close look, saw the nest. It may be imagined with what delight I beheld the first nest of this rare bird ever seen, and with what eagerness I dropped to my knees beside it to make a closer examination of its contents. There were two young birds, perhaps ten days old, and a perfect egg; this proved to be the only egg found.

Wood described the nest as built in a depression on the ground, partially covered with blueberry and sweet fern plants, underneath a five-foot-tall jack pine tree.

Wood took thorough field notes of the structure and composition of the nest, the surrounding vegetation, and the condition of the young birds. Wood continued his studies for the next few days, noting that the birds were not shy around humans and that one female had briefly landed on the shoe of one of his companions. He shot several more male specimens and found at least one other nest, which he also studied closely. On July 11, Wood dug up that nest and the surrounding vegetation to ship back to Ann Arbor for further study.

After getting a photograph of the nest and its vicinity I shot the pair of birds and kept the young alive. We dug up the nest and started for [the home of a local resident where Wood was staying], arriving after dark. I kept the young alive, by feeding them houseflies, until the 13th. Then they died, and I made skins of them, preserving the bodies. I had hoped to rear these young, at least to keep them alive until I reached Ann Arbor. I evidently did not have the variety of food required, although they ate from six to ten flies each at a time and then went to sleep very contentedly.

There was one other thing that Wood learned: even though the nesting location of the Kirtland's warbler had been unknown to science, the bird was very familiar to the people living in the area. They knew it simply as "the jack-pine bird."

In his summary, Wood took a guess at estimating the size of the colony's population. "We may then estimate that the colony contained thirteen pairs of birds," he wrote, "with their increase, and assuming that each nest contained on an average four young, we have fifty-two young birds. Adding to this the number of the parents, twenty-six, gives an estimated total of seventy-eight (78) birds in the area described."

Wood's discovery was quickly acknowledged in the Auk by the American Ornithologists' Union.

The song and the habits of the birds as observed in their breeding haunts are minutely described, and descriptions and half-tone illustrations are given of the egg and nests, of the sites where the nests were found, and of the mounted group of these birds now in the Museum of the University of Michigan, prepared by Mr. Wood from the materials obtained on this expedition. Although preliminary notices of these discoveries have been published, this paper forms the most important contribution thus far made to the history of the species, which is at last removed from the small list of North American birds whose nests and eggs and breeding habits still remain unknown.

The revelation also allowed ornithologists to open a new round of speculation about the Kirtland's warbler. The same issue of the Bulletin that featured Wood's account also included an article on the warbler's migration route written by Charles Adams, the curator of the University of Michigan Museum and Wood's boss. Adams argued that it was important to research and understand the species' migration route because it could reveal how the Kirtland's warbler had populated the Great Lakes region after the Wisconsin glacier receded. Adams speculated that the warbler had nested in the pines of the American Southeast while Michigan lay under tons of ice and that the migration route would have been a simple jump across the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas to the southeastern United States. But once the glacier receded and jack pines began to occupy the north, Adams argued, the warbler made its way northward by following its traditional migration route from the Bahamas to the southeastern United States and then to the Mississippi River via the southern pine barrens. Once the birds reached the Mississippi River, they turned north to reach the Ohio Valley about the first week in May and northern Ohio and southern Michigan in the second or third week of May. To reach the northern Michigan jack pines, Adams suggested that the bird would take the Mississippi to the Wabash River. It would then leave the river valley near Fort Wayne, Indiana, and travel over land to the Maumee River, which empties into Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio. A Kirtland's warbler would then follow the shoreline of Lake Erie, the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Clair River to Lake Huron. Instead of crossing Saginaw Bay from Michigan's Thumb to Tawas Point, Adams speculated that the bird flew around the bay, following the shoreline.

Why this circuitous route? Adams cites the work of Frank Leverett, who had earlier documented ancient glacial lakes and drainage lines in the Mississippi River watershed that "form conspicuous features of the topography." If the Kirtland's warbler came north following the receding glaciers, Adams argued, it was only "natural that it would follow such highways ..."

It seemed reasonable that the Kirtland's warbler would follow the expanding territory of the pines as they followed the receding glacier. However Adams and Leverett were wrong. We now know that the pines didn't migrate up the Mississippi River watershed. The jack pine arrived in Michigan some 11,500 years ago, after it moved up the East Coast and then expanded west. That expansion would make the jack pine's migration pattern much more consistent with the Kirtland's actual route to and from the Bahamas.

With so little known about the Kirtland's warbler in the early twentieth century, it's easy to see how Adams and Chapman could reach faulty conclusions about its migration route.

Wood's discovery of the Kirtland's warbler nesting grounds sent egg collectors, ornithologists, and museum workers into a frenzy; everyone wanted a skin or a nest or an egg. Wood used what few Kirtland's warbler skins he had as a bartering device, often garnering several bird skins for his museum in exchange for just one Kirtland's warbler. One of the first letters he sent was to Joseph Grinnell, the business manager of the Condor, a magazine of western ornithology based in Pasadena, California. In March 1904, Grinnell responded, "In reply to yours of Mar. 7th: I should be glad to get a first class pair of skins of Kirtland's warbler." In exchange for the Kirtland's warbler skins, Grinnell offered the skins of Townsend's warblers, hermit warblers, black-throated gray warblers and others.

Soon Wood was receiving letters from collectors and dealers all over the United States. One collector, Charles A. Allen of San Geronimo, California, enclosed a price list in his letter for bird skins he had in stock; the prices ranged from $.25 for various warblers, wrens, and tits to $1.50 for a "western red-tailed hawk" and $2.50 for a "California pigmy owl."

At Wood's request, Jim Parmalee, a resident of the area near where Wood found the nesting colony, collected a nest with eggs—not young birds—in 1904, and had them shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. But while Wood and Parmalee were collecting adults, nestlings, and eggs for science, collectors and profiteers were also descending on Oscoda County, and people living near the colony were taking eggs and selling them to collectors for as much as twenty-five dollars each. A horrified editorial in the September 1904 issue of the Bulletin of the Michigan Ornithological Club, signed by associate editor Walter B. Barrows, lamented the impact bird collectors were having on the nesting colony and admitted that perhaps Wood's article had been too specific about the location of the colony.

The announcement in a former number of this journal of the discovery of the nesting ground of the Kirtland's Warbler created something of a sensation in ornithological circles. As might have been foreseen more than one collector planned to raid Oscoda County this summer and secure specimens of the coveted bird and its eggs. Reports of such intentions were current before the winter's snows had left the Au Sable region and many a bird-lover's blood grew hot at the thought of the certain persecution and possible extermination of the only known colony of this rare species.

Knowledge of the impending danger reached the State Game Warden too late to forestall all attempts but with his customary promptness and energy he took in the situation and made a strong effort to protect the birds. About the 20th of June every permit to take birds for scientific purposes was revoked so far as this warbler was concerned, a special deputy was added to the force in the Au Sable region, and a reward was offered for the apprehension of anyone molesting Kirtland's Warbler in any way. The effect was immediate and salutary, and every true ornithologist as well as every right-minded citizen will thank Mr. Chapman for his prompt and vigorous action while regretting that it could not have taken effect at an earlier date.


Excerpted from The Kirtland's Warbler by William Rapai Copyright © 2012 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Part One The Past

One The Jack-Pine Bird 9

Two An Amazing Set of Pipes 30

Three The Cowbird Cometh 35

Four Guinea Pigs 54

Five "Now We've Got a Problem" 57

Six A Working Landscape 77

Seven An Unseasoned Challenger Takes on the Incumbent 93

Part Two The Present

Eight The Science 99

Nine Scientists, Entrepreneurs, Dealmakers, Diplomats 120

Ten Inspiring a New Generation of Conservationists 151

Eleven Thirty Years of Conflict and Resolution 754

Twelve Giving Voice to a Songbird 171

Part Three The Future

Thirteen At a Crossroads 177

Epilogue 187

Notes 193

Index 201

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