Kirtland's Warbler Study

May 22, 2014 by Nathan Cooper

I wanted to take this chance to introduce everyone to a new project at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) dealing with an exciting endangered species. For those of you that don't know, the Kirtland's Warbler is a small bird that breeds in Jack Pine forests in Michigan and winters in The Bahamas, and possibly other parts of the Caribbean as well.

In the 1970's there were less than 200 Kirtland's Warblers anywhere in the world. Through extensive habitat management on the breeding grounds and control of Brown-headed Cowbirds (an important nest parasite) the population has increased to over 2,000 singing males. It is a true conservation success story, but populations have not totally recovered and current and future threats to their populations still exist.

Kirtland's Warbler breeding habitat.

Pete Marra, director of the SMBC, and I recently received funding to study several aspects of the Kirtland's Warbler annual cycle that we know little about. First, we will be using light-level geolocators, which are small tracking devices that can infer latitude and longitude from ambient light levels, to track Kirtland's Warblers over the next year. These devices will allow us to gain a better understanding of where these birds migrate to during the winter.

Preliminary data suggest that some birds may spend the winter in Cuba and the SMBC is planning a trip there later this winter to look for them. Second, we will be using small radio-tracking devices to follow young birds for the first month out of the nest to better understand their survival rates and habitat use during the critical post-fledgling period. This research will hopefully help the Kirtland's Warbler Recovery Team in their conservation efforts.

Over this summer we'll update you every once in awhile to let you know how things are going in the field and keep you up to date on any exciting happenings. First, a brief introduction of our team. I'm Nathan Cooper and will be leading the team in the field. I recently finished up my Ph.D. at Tulane University and the SMBC.

A few months ago, I hired Tom Ryan, a recent SUNY ESF graduate, to help out with fieldwork this summer. Tom has a real passion for birds and is excited about using experience gained this summer to begin his own career in Ornithology. We are also lucky enough to have David Bryden volunteer on the project in June.

David will join us from New Zealand, where he has been helping reintroduce another endangered species, the Kakapo. Check out their amazing story, too.

Together, we are looking forward to a great season in northern Michigan. Check back soon for more updates as we begin our field season this week!

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