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Rare songbird recovers, moves off endangered species list

  • The Kirtland’s warbler, a species that was close to extinction five decades ago, is now thriving and has been removed from the U.S. federal list of endangered species.
  • Where there were fewer than 200 breeding pairs of the warbler in the 1970s and 1980s, today there are more than 2,300.
  • However, the warbler’s continued survival is conservation-reliant, which means it will still depend heavily on continued conservation efforts.
  • Conservationists say the bird’s comeback is testament that the Endangered Species Act works, and warn that current attempts by the Trump administration to roll back conservation policies could lead to other protected species going extinct.

The recovery of a rare bird species that was close to extinction five decades ago is now being heralded as a conservation success story.

The Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), also known as the jack pine warbler, a small songbird that nests only in young jack pine forests in northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, was never really considered to be an abundant species. During the first ever census of the bird in 1951, birders and researchers counted 432 singing males (a rough proxy of the number of breeding pairs). A decade later, the number rose to 502 singing males. The third census in 1971, however, revealed a population crash: researchers counted only 203 singing males, a number that saw subsequent slight dips and rises, but remained low throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, the warbler, known for its distinct yellow throat, chest and belly and blue-gray head and back, became one of the first species to be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).

But thanks to decades of conservation actions, the bird is now thriving, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) says. There are more than 2,300 singing males (or breeding pairs) of the warbler as per latest estimates, and due to its recovery, the species has been removed from the federal list of endangered species.

“The delisting of the Kirtland’s Warbler is cause for celebration and proof that the Endangered Species Act works,” Shawn Graff, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy’s (ABC) Great Lakes program, said in a statement.

Dan Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, added that delisting marked the “latest chapter in a remarkable wildlife success story.”

“The bird’s recovery provides dramatic testimony to what conservation organizations, governments and businesses can accomplish when they come together for the good of the resource,” he said in a statement.

However, the warbler’s survival into the future is conservation-reliant, conservationists say, which means that it will still depend heavily on continued active management efforts.

For example, the warbler needs large stands of young jack pine habitat to nest, and historically, wildfires helped create those vast tracts of habitat. But practices like fire suppression and timber harvesting in the early 1900s reduced the area the birds could breed in, according to the USFWS. To counter this, authorities developed a rigorous management plan that mimicked the natural processes within jack pine forests and increased the warbler’s breeding habitat. In addition, they had to work to control brown-headed cowbirds, birds that lay their eggs in warbler nests, forcing the warbler parents to raise larger cowbird chicks that easily outcompete the smaller warbler babies.

“This bird flew off the endangered species list because the Endangered Species Act works,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This success story highlights the danger of the Trump administration’s efforts to cripple laws protecting our wildlife and natural landscapes. Without the Endangered Species Act, the Kirtland’s warbler might have vanished forever. Many other species will disappear if we don’t stop Trump’s efforts to gut conservation policies.”

A male Kirtland’s warbler in a jack pine forest in Michigan, U.S. Image by Jeol Trick/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
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