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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Advocates Of Small Songbird Hope Its Rebound Helps Other Fragile Species

Updated Oct. 8 at 2:15 p.m. CT

The Kirtland’s warbler is officially coming off of the endangered species list. This success story comes as the Trump administration has proposed stripping protections built into that law.

Those behind the Kirtland’s renaissance say the Endangered Species Act not only works but think their public private model can be a template to help other fragile species.

The yellow-breasted songbird measures no more than 6 inches from beak to tail. It forages on insects, larvae, and the occasional blueberry. The warblers winter in the Bahamas and travel to the Midwest to nest – mostly in Michigan and Wisconsin.

By the time the Endangered Species Act came on the scene in 1973, the warbler was on the brink of extinction, numbering fewer than 400.

Credit Susan Bence
Recent college graduate Kandace Glanville monitored Kirtland's nesting in Marinette County this summer as part of a monitoring program in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada.

Monitoring programs were set up, including in Wisconsin’s Marinette County. Kandace Glanville has been spending her summer tracking Kirtland’s warblers that nest on a few parcels there. 

She says one of the reasons for the decline is because Kirtland's warblers nest on the ground, tucked beneath young pine trees. “Like these little depressions around the jack pines, they’ll nest up against one of those shelves right there,” Glanville explains. 

A different species, called the brown-headed cowbird, takes advantage of the nest’s location. The bird waits until the warbler flies off for food, then swoops in and lays her eggs in the nest. That leaves the Kirtland’s warbler to raise both its own and the cowbird’s young.

Credit Kandace Glanville
Kirtland's warblers choose a precarious spot to nest, on the ground beneath young jack pine trees.

And the young jack pines hosting the nest are increasingly scarce.

Over the last 40 years, state and federal biologists and foresters worked to increase the songbird’s habitat while controlling brown-headed cowbird numbers.

Emily Vogelgesang works with Huron Pines conservancy in Michigan. It’s one of the private organizations that joined in the Kirtland’s warbler project.

“We didn’t know enough about what it needed at the time, so a lot of time in the early '70s to the early 2000s was spent figuring out how to best manage the land,” Vogelgesang says.

Now, the Kirtland’s population has soared above 4,000. And while the species awaits delisting, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says without continued human involvement the bird’s numbers would nosedive again.

Vogelgesang says it’s an official designation — conservation-reliant. “There are a lot of plans being put into place across its breeding range ... to provide that jack pine habitat that these picky birds like to live on,” she says.

Shawn Graff, with American Bird Conservancy, is helping raise the estimated $2 million a year needed to help the birds. Graff thinks the public-private model is working.

Credit Susan Bence
A glimpse of a Kirtland's warbler in Marinette County earlier this summer.

“This model of partners agreeing to long-term commitment for management and the idea that you need a source of funding, whether that be an endowment or active fundraising by key partners,” Graff says.

Chelsea Sorbo works for Sand Valley golf course in Central Wisconsin. She grew up in the area, but says she wasn't always aware of the Kirtland's warbler's status.

“I didn’t know the potential of the land. I never learned about it. I never learned about the endangered species,” she says.

Credit Susan Bence
Chelsea Sorbo coordinates conservation efforts for Kirtland's warblers and other species, including bluebirds at Sand Valley in Adams County.

Now, Sorbo is helping transition golf course land to native habitat, including growing jack pines for the warblers.

The bird’s supporters say people like Sorbo, coupled with long-range planning and funding can bolster an otherwise uncertain future for this warbler — and other fragile species.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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