6.11.2020 – The Kirtland’s Warbler

The Kirtland’s Warbler
unexpected success in
unexpected place

Kirtland’s warbler.

If you grew up in Michigan in the 70’s and had any awareness of the State’s natural resources and wild lands, you were aware of the plight of the Kirtland’s Warbler.

A small song bird that summered in Michigan and wintered in the Bahamas and was down to about 300 nesting pairs in the world.

I know I was aware of the bird.

But then I had a friend, Larry, who was into birds.

His nickname was Big Bird, or The Bird or just Bird.

For the longest time I thought his name WAS bird.

Bird new all about the Kirtland’s Warbler.

And because of Bird, we all knew about the Kirtland’s Warbler.

But it went beyond just having Bird for a friend.

Michigan’s author of Civil War history, Bruce Catton, wrote an autobiography about growing up in the Michigan titled, Waiting for the Morning Train.

He wrote about that the warbler looked for 2nd growth pine forests to live and nest.

The type of habitat you get where there are regular forest fires.

Back in the early 1900’s almost all the trees in the state were cut down.

Then the State Department of Natural Resources started to prevent forest fires.

As the forest grew up, the 2nd growth pine forests disappeared along with Kirtland’s Warbler.

By the 1970’s the Michigan DNR was setting controlled forest fire to create the habitat the Warbler looked for.

Mr. Catton found that to be an odd track in the circle of the State;s history.

Along with Mr. Catton, Michigan Author Jim Harrison’s books are full of bird watchers and school kids with their Audubon Cards.

I would guess that the story of the Kirtland’s Warbler shows up in half of his books.

Along with these two authors the general newspaper coverage of those years could be counted for yearly updates of the battle to save the warbler.

I remember how Bird and his bird watching friends were out all the time for Warbler counts.

My point is I was very much aware of the fact that this tiny bird that summered in Michigan and wintered in the Bahamas was on the point of extinction.

And then I forgot.

I got married and put together a family and moved to Georgia.

I pretty much forgot all about this little bird.

Then a couple of weeks back, the bird was back in my reading.


Unexpected that the bird was back in the news.

I had not thought about that warbler for years, decades and now it was back in the news.

It was just a casual mention in another story on another topic in the New York Times.

But there it was.

Such a casual mention in this other story to me spoke volumes about this bird and reawakened echos long unheard.

The bird, from 300 nesting pairs or less, had survived.

The nutty plan to protect and even create this special habitat for this bird in Northern lower Michigan had worked.

Some how we had got something right.

This odd track of the story of the death of a wilderness was a success story.

The Kirtland Warbler was back.

Not only was back but was spotted in New York City as recently as 2018.

At that time, one birder, Phil Jeffrey, said in an online interview, “It’s an extremely rare bird for NYC although just short of a national rarity, as the breeding population has rebounded after conservation efforts… It’s in the once-per-Century level for the park and I would suspect few records in NY State, That’s what generates the attention. Many other park ‘rare’ warblers have much larger populations, are more-or-less annual but in very low numbers. Kirkland’s is off the scale by comparison.”

The news of the sighting went viral excited NYC’s birding community in general and a man named Christian Cooper in particular.

I was reading this other article in the Times on a completely different story line when I came across this line: “What he [Christian Cooper] was interested in were birds, like the sighting in 2018 of a rare Kirtland’s warbler that led him to sprint from his office in Midtown Manhattan to the park to catch a glimpse.

I didn’t know a thing about him.

But I felt like I knew him.

I felt like we had 40 years of shared experience tied up in this bird.

A bird that had come close to extinction had made a comeback and caused Mr. Cooper to sprint from his office in Midtown Manhattan to the park to catch a glimpse

The article that mentioned this was titled: “The Bird Watcher, That Incident and His Feelings on the Woman’s Fate”.

The article was a follow up to the article, “White Woman Is Fired After Calling Police on Black Man in Central Park: Video of the incident touched off intense discussions about the history of black people being falsely reported to the police.”

Christian Cooper is the Black Man in the story.

Mr. Cooper who was out bird watching and a woman walking her dog felt threatened enough to call the cops.

Christian Cooper once sprinted from his office in Midtown Manhattan to the park to catch a glimpse of a Kirtland’s warbler,

It was the Warbler mention though that stuck with me.

One reason is kind of silly.

How often are we in situations were we wish we had something to say.

Something that could offer hope or a difference or encourage or just a way out of a bad place.

For myself, I don’t have to think about what I could say to Mr. Cooper if we ever meet.

I would ask him to tell me about that bird.

And for some reason, with everything else to talk about, I feel like he would appreciate that.

The bird could lift us out of the need for an ugly discussion.

I have to say, I really want to know what he felt at that moment of seeing a Kirtland’s Warbler in New York City.’

Another reason?

Somehow, someway, most likely in spite of ourselves, we may have helped bring this bird back.

We, the people we, had a success.

A small success.

An unexpected success in an unexpected place.

Maybe we CAN pull off a bigger one.

Got to try.

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