The Kirtland’s Warbler

The Kirkland’s Warbler:  The story of a bird’s fight against extinction and the people who saved it by William Rapai had been gathering dust bunnies on my bookshelf for over a year. I then moved it across county lines, even after a dubious second glance that made me doubt I would ever read it. The inertia was simply too strong. If a book sits on my shelf for more than a few months, the odds that I will read it plummet. I love watching for warblers, quick and bright and energetic, but wasn’t drawn to a book about one I’d never seen.


I was kicking myself for the delay as I read it. Out-of-control wildfires, long migration to the Bahamas, secrets of its wintering ground largely unknown, heartless murder (on the human side), the only bird nesting solely in Michigan (for a time) – this large friendly warbler leads a very dramatic life. Its survival – having been threatened by human activity and patterns of settlement – now depends on plodding human intervention.

I really liked the structure of this book – Past, Present, and Future. It makes sense as a book about human-wildlife-environment relationships.

The past was a bit startling, with excerpts like:  ” ‘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 [their temporary residence], arriving after dark. I keep the young alive, by feeding them houseflies, until the 13th. Then they died, and I made skins of them, preserving th 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.” (Alan Wood, taxidermist, quoted on pg. 13)

Oh My. It is startling to be reminded of our bloodthirsty past with regards to wildlife. Literally anything and everything was shot, poisoned, or otherwise forced to shuffle off its mortal coil. I can’t even fathom the amount of wildlife that used to exist. Our baselines are so skewed due to the excesses of the past.

Is it enough to make up for these past atrocities by removing cowbirds, starting controlled burns, and intensively monitoring a species? The present section delves into the variety of human interventions, including a fair amount of tedium-heavy research and monitoring.

The future concludes with a knotty question – When a species has rebounded due to human intervention, which emerges from legal structures that enable drastic action, what next? Removing the legal protections and/or the funding could undo all of the progress. Continuing in perpetuity isn’t ideal either, but climate change will be throwing a whole wrench in the works, and another population crash might leave the warblers with numbers too low for recovery. The conservationists, land managers, citizens, and scientists are well aware of the thorny issues presented by removing the warbler from the Endangered Species List.

“Pause and consider for a moment the challenges the Kirkland’s warbler has seen and overcome during [the two million years it has been a species]:  incredible variations in the North American climate, including four glacial periods that would have caused the warbler’s current summer range to be under vast sheets of ice and its current winter range to be under water; mass extinctions, including those of the woolly mammoth, mastodon, giant sloth, saber-toothed cats, and giant leaves; volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes, which caused sudden dramatic fluctuations in weather patterns; the rise and fall of sea levels, which allowed saltwater creatures to exist in the Great Lakes; and the arrival of Native Americans and eventually Europeans.

The Kirkland’s warbler still exists as a species today because of human intervention,  but the species itself deserves some credit for being one plucky bird.” (177)

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