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How Michigan grit saved the ‘bird of fire’

Michael Bean
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Detroit’s auto industry revival is emblematic of how much Michiganders can accomplish through perseverance and working together. Another resurgence has been taking place in the state, made possible through decades of cooperation among numerous partners — the recovery of Michigan’s “bird of fire,” the Kirtland’s warbler.

More than 60 years ago, scientists realized that the Kirtland’s warbler was in trouble. A 1951 census found fewer than 500 breeding pairs. The bird was among the first species ever listed as endangered and was the first species to ever have a “recovery team.”

Kirtland’s warblers will only nest in young jack pine forest. Jack pine requires fire to open its cones and spread its seeds — hence the nickname, “bird of fire.” Fire suppression policies last century led to the decline of the Kirtland’s warbler, as did parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds. The recovery team had to figure out a way to overcome these challenges to save the species.

Since 1974, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team has worked to save the species, even when the outlook for recovery was bleak. The recovery team brought together federal, state, academic, nonprofit, and even international partners.

Today, scientists estimate there are more than 4,000 Kirtland’s warblers in Michigan. The population has more than doubled its recovery goal, so the recovery team is no longer needed. Through years of hard work the partners figured out how to provide the conditions necessary for the warblers to survive, and the birds have flourished.

Recovering a species, like recovering an industry, takes cooperation and grit. Thanks to the work of the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team, made possible by the Endangered Species Act, we can envision a bright future for this important piece of Michigan’s natural heritage. Sticking by the Kirtland’s warbler is paying off.

Now the Kirtland’s warbler is on the path toward being removed from the endangered species list, proving once again that betting on Michigan — whether it’s about industry or wildlife — is the right thing to do.

Michael Bean is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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