I’ve not been privileged to see a Kirtland’s warbler or even to listen to one’s song, except on recordings. Yet the little bird inspired calls that figured in my life on two occasions.
It’s not unusual for people interested in the warbler to never have encountered one. As humans gradually eliminated the Kirtland’s nesting habitat, the bird’s summer range diminished until it became a rare bird.
|A little bird with a lot of friends (USFS Photo: Joel Trick)|
My first Kirtland’s warbler call came on May 5, 1980. I was serving as the Public Information Officer in the Milwaukee headquarters of the Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. My boss phoned me at home and told me to get ready for an early morning trip to Michigan. He said a planned fire had gotten away and I was needed to help answer media and congressional inquiries. I got the details on an auto trip to Mio after a Forest Service plane dropped me off in Cadillac.
Ranger District personnel had started a fire to burn debris in a logged area south of Mio. The plan was to create good conditions for planting jack pine seedlings that would become prime nesting habitat for the warbler. The fire escaped. It burned 20,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 44 dwellings in the Village of Mack Lake. A Forest Service wildlife biologist was killed while he was trying to stop the blaze in its early stages.
I was almost immediately deluged with phone calls. Among other things, I had no place to sleep, so I bedded down for a few hours on the floor of the county assessor’s office where I’d been given some work space. I don’t remember having time to eat anything until mid-morning of my second day on the job.
The Forest Service launched investigations of the circumstances of the Mack Lake Fire’s start, and of the employee death. I was involved in a small way in the main investigation after the fire was over, and wrote a news release announcing the results that got major play in the media. The approach was to be painfully honest about everything concerning the fire. The Forest Service investigation report said the fire should not have been started that day. The report stuck to the facts, as did my news release.
I transferred to the Intermountain West a few months after the Mack Lake Fire and heard almost nothing about the Kirtland’s warbler until about five years ago. The phone call was from a Bill Rapai, who said he was writing a book about the warbler, and I was one of the few people still living who played a key role in the Mack Lake Fire. He thought the fire would be an emphasis item in his story. Would I answer a few questions?
The few questions became quite a few, and my memory was being taxed to the limit almost 30 years after the incident, so I requested written questions. Rapai’s e-mailed questions and my answers totaled about 3,000 words in seven pages. From all that verbiage, the author described my part in the story in about 400 words included in two long paragraphs. That probably is one paragraph more than the importance of my work deserved.
I just finished reading “The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight against Extinction and the People Who Saved It,” by William Rapai. It was published recently by The University of Michigan Press, and is available at all the usual book sales places.
One thing needs clarification. I am not one of the warbler saviors. Over the years, several individuals did devote much energy and time to help prevent the extinction of the little bird, and their work is described in detail in the book. There may be more heroes in the future. Experts believe that the bird cannot survive without continuing human manipulation of its habitat, and there is opposition to the types of work required.
Rapai is the president of the Grosse Pointe (Michigan) Chapter of the Audubon Society. He has been a successful newspaper writer and editor, and it shows. He presents historic material that could be dry reading in a compelling way, and adds interest throughout the book with many anecdotes. His book is an easy-to-read guide to what’s known about the warbler plus descriptions of current preservation work and research aimed at gaining more knowledge.
What’s the bottom line? Kirtland’s warbler numbers are up dramatically, and nests recently have been found in several areas outside Michigan. The warbler soon may be removed from the federal endangered species list.
How did that happy turn of events come about? Was the otherwise tragic Mack Lake Fire a positive force in helping the little bird with the big voice survive and thrive? Get a copy of “The Kirtland’s Warbler,” enjoy a good read, and find out.