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Jack Pine tree-planting supports threatened bird

 Kirtland's Warbler
Wikimedia Commons
Kirtland's Warbler

A group of volunteers will be planting jack pine trees May 6 in Crawford County. But the effort isn’t just trees-for-trees sake – the planting supports the special habitat of a threatened bird.

The Kirtland’s warbler is known as a “habitat specialist.” That means the small yellow-bellied songbird is a bit picky about where it chooses to nest.

Jack pine forests that are between five and 10 years old are ideal for the bird. A concerted effort to restore this landscape has saved the warbler from extinction.

Bill Rapai is the president of the Kirtland Warbler Alliance. The group has led an annual tree-planting event for the last decade.

"Endangered species conservation is not always the best story because it often does not have good outcomes," Rapai said. "The Kirtland’s warbler is one of those stories that makes people feel good about conservation: we saved a bird from extinction.”

Rapai said this year, a group of 50 volunteers will plant 6,000 trees over four acres near Grayling.

The Kirtland's warbler historically relied on wildfires to create new jack pine growth.

The majority of wildfires in Michigan today are human-caused. But instead of letting them run rampant, Rapai said it's become a statewide and federal initiative to focus on tree-planting.

He said the Alliance's tree-planting are a drop in the bucket, relative to the state's and Forest Service's scale, but it’s gratifying to visit former planting sites.

“That is the absolute best part of it," Rapai said. "We planted about 10 years ago, off a stately Lake Road. And I went back there this year. Seeing the Kirtland's warblers in trees that I know that I helped plant was pretty cool.”

The latest census from 2021 estimates there are about 2,200 Kirtland's warblers. Thanks to conservation efforts like jack pine tree-planting, the bird was delisted from the endangered species list in 2019.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.