By ALETHIA KASBEN
Capital News Service
LANSING – As a birder, William Rapai knew a lot about the Kirtland’s warbler, so he decided to tell the story of the rare species in a new book.
It wasn’t always easy, he said.
“I started four years ago, and there were some bumps in the road,” said Rapai, who lives in Grosse Pointe, Mich. “My wife had cancer and had surgery, but we got through that.
“I have gone to Thailand, Iceland and Cuba to go bird- watching,” said Rapai. “I had never really considered writing a book, and now I have one. It is pretty amazing.”
The result is The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight against Extinction and the People Who Saved It. Published by the University of Michigan Press with a cover price of $24.95.
The Kirtland’s warbler nests mostly in northern Michigan between Grayling and Oscoda, Rapai said. Small percentages also nest in Wisconsin and Ontario. The birds migrate to the Bahamas during the winter months, he said.
During his life as a bird-watcher, Rapai, paid attention to the Kirtland’s warbler. He said it is a good-looking bird with a beautiful song, and people like it because it’s rare.
In 1971 the population of singing males in the world dwindled to 201 and by 2011 the population reached nearly 2,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Because of its specific nesting habits — on sandy soil underneath young jack pine trees — Rapai called it a conservation-reliant species, meaning it will always need human assistance to survive. “There’s not a lot of demand for cutting down jack pines once they are allowed to mature,” he said. “The warbler took a nose dive because there wasn’t enough young jack pine.”
Now, Rapai said, conservationists working with state officials chop down jack pines after they mature to allow for warbler nesting areas.
“Anything that is rare is valuable,” he said. “Because it is Michigan’s bird and a rare bird, people said we were going to do whatever we can.”
Because the bird is on the federal endangered species list, it’s the job of professional biologists working with the state to protect it. But a long line of people have worked hard to keep the bird alive throughout the years.
“All of those little stories, you can’t write a book about one of them. But all of them plus some others begins to build a narrative,” he said. “It tells a story about these people who would not allow the Kirtland’s warbler to go extinct.
“There was very little ego involved. People were doing whatever they could to benefit the bird without demanding credit.”
Those people included a dentist from Battle Creek named Lawrence Walkinshaw who in 1932 became the first person to follow the bird around to research its nesting habits.
Walkinshaw dentist discovered that the birds needed protection from the brown-headed cowbird – a discovery that proved key to conserving the population. The cowbird is a nest parasite that is now controlled in all Kirtland’s warbler habitat areas, Rapai said.
Even so, Rapai said the bird could go into another population tailspin.
“It will be taken off the endangered species list eventually,” he said. “There are issues with that. If the protections are withdrawn, what happens to the Kirtland’s warbler?”
People committed to protecting the species plan to create a Friends of the Warbler endowment to raise money for conservation after federal money is withdrawn, he said.
“One of the things that has always impressed me about the people dedicated to the warbler is they have a vision,” he said. “They see issues and deal them.”
Alethia Kasben writes for Great Lakes Echo.
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