are kirtland’s warblers really in jeopardy?

November 28, 2005

in Birds, Science

Recently, there has been a buzz going around birding and conservation lists about some funding cutbacks for Kirtland’s Warbler management.  Specifically, some of the cowbird trapping will be reduced.  A message circulating regarding the cuts from one organization calls for urgent action, stating that if the funding cuts are allowed to stand, “the Kirtland’s Warbler will be driven to brink of extinction again.”

I appreciate the good intentions of these conservation organizations, and the bird lovers that have gotten all whipped up over this message. But I think the urgency characterized here may be overblown, due in part to the vilification of cowbirds by the public and general misconceptions regarding cowbird impact on songbirds, and the unpopularity of new research on the efficacy of cowbird control for endangered species management.

We tend to lose sight of the fact that nest parasitism is a natural process.  Would any sensible conservationist endorse the slaughter of hawks, even though doing so would undoubtedly save the lives of any number of birds or small animals?

There is more than meets the eye here, and in a series of several posts, I’d like to briefly explore three main topics: an overview about cowbirds and their impacts on songbirds, problems with cowbird control as an endangered species management tool, and the specific issues surrounding Kirtland’s Warbler recovery efforts.  Stay tuned, I’m sure my “devil’s advocate” position may ruffle some feathers.

Clare November 29, 2005 at 7:31 am

Always look forward to your feather ruffling nuthatch. Learn so much from it.

biosparite November 29, 2005 at 11:38 am

Isn't the cowbird issue really one of wooded habitat fragmentation that permits cowbirds to invade forested areas that are now penetrated by roads and other development? If woods were intact, cowbirds would be parasitizing nests along the fringes. Run highways and roads through the woods, and you expand the fringes dramatically. Also, I see large flocks of cowbirds in Houston in the wintertime. Isn't the cowbird population on the rise because of the expansion of its habitat such that the number of nests parasitized is also increasing? What to do?

Cindy November 29, 2005 at 11:42 am

interesting post Nutty- but unless you've seen their breeding grounds first hand, I'm going to play devils advocate myself. The cowbird is the most PREVALENT species in the Kirtlands breeding ground. Period.

"Would any sensible conservationist endorse the slaughter of hawks, even though doing so would undoubtedly save the lives of any number of birds or small animals?"

I feel that is a grossly unfair comparison. You know how I am, I'm one of those folks who cries if she runs over a frog while mowing the lawn.. the idea of euthanizing (call it slaughter if you wish to be sensationlistic) birds does not appeal to me. But if it ensures the continued population of an endangered species, then hell yes I endorse it.

Consider my feathers more than ruffled.

Cindy November 29, 2005 at 11:45 am

" But if it ensures the continued population of an endangered"

In my haste I misworded that sentence. It should read "HELP ensure the continued population." Come on up to Ogemaw County and do a brown-headed cowbird count someday- I'll take you right straight to the largest stronghold the Kirtlands are breeding in. I promise you that you'll be counting way more cowbirds than Kirtlands.
I think I better quit now while before I make more typographical errors.

P.M.Bryant November 29, 2005 at 1:00 pm

Looking forward to hearing your opinion on this. I don't know much about Kirtland's Warblers, but I do know a little about the endangered Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers that, here in central Texas, are also (supposedly) being helped in their recovery by cowbird control programs.

Alan November 29, 2005 at 8:36 pm

I believe many otherwise sensible-thinking wild Nature advocates are still very much inclined to view a "dark" species such as the cowbird in anthropomorphic terms, i.e., good and bad, or good vs. bad. The origin and historic (pre-English settlement) range of the species is very well established in the ornithological literature. Birders learn this in their first basic field guide. Cowbird control and habitat creation (the periodic controlled burning of jack pine stands) are two basic methods of ensuring a relatively high level of nesting productivity. That, after all, is what this management program is all about. It is a shame, nevertheless (and speaks mightily about how sweeping human changes to the landscape are), that a songbird species (the Kirtland's) does better when another species is artificially controlled.

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