GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The American robin has been Michigan’s state bird for nearly a century, but a bipartisan group of legislators is looking to shake things up in honor of a uniquely Michigan species and the hard work that was done to save it.
Last month, state Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock, introduced a bill that would make the Kirtland’s warbler the official state bird of Michigan. Markkanen says he can remember hearing the call of the songbird while he was stationed with the Michigan Army National Guard in Grayling and believes it should be highlighted.
“Fifty years coming back from near extinction, it’s an incredible story and I think this is really to honor the efforts of the biologists at the federal and state level and all of the private citizens that have contributed to help bring this bird back,” Markkanen told News 8.
The American robin was selected as Michigan’s state bird in 1931. The state government’s website says the robin was “favored by the Michigan Audubon Society” and that bill sponsors “called the robin ‘the best-known and best-loved of all birds in the state of Michigan.’”
Markkanen said his bill has gotten a lot of negative feedback. He said he doesn’t dislike robins but they aren’t special to Michigan. They are common across the continental United States. According to The Audubon Society, robins are a common sight in all seasons across most of the United States, are commonly found in Alaska during breeding season and winter as far south as Florida, Texas and Mexico. Robins are also the state bird of Wisconsin and Connecticut.
“I like robins. I look for robins every spring. Seeing the first robin in the spring is a big deal. It still is for me,” Markkanen said. “But once people hear the story about the Kirtland’s warbler, (they’ll agree).”
The Kirtland’s warbler is a migratory songbird that is found almost exclusively in Michigan and, like the Great Lakes piping plover, is on the rebound after nearly going extinct.
Jennifer Kleitch, an endangered species specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the Kirtland’s warbler was added to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species List in 1967 and less than 200 breeding pairs were found in the counts done throughout the 1970s. That’s when conservation groups got serious about saving the bird. Their primary focus: preserving its habitat of young jack pine trees.
“(Kirtland’s warblers) nest at the base of a young jack pine near the ground or on the ground. Young jack pine trees have really dense cover, so they are protected better from predators,” Kleitch told News 8.
As those trees mature, the cover lifts and exposes the birds. In a typical cycle, wildfires would thin out forests, take out mature jack pines and allow new saplings to grow in their place. But human efforts to prevent wildfires had inadvertently had a negative impact on the bird.
The good news is the population has rebounded thanks to conservation efforts.
“The last census for the birds during the (2021) breeding season resulted in over 2,000 breeding pairs,” Kleitch said.
The vast majority of the Kirtland’s warbler population is in Michigan, though since the conservation efforts started, some of the birds have been spotted in Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada.
The conservation efforts will continue, but the count is high enough now that the Kirtland’s warbler was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2019.
Markkanen said his bill has moved onto committee and he hopes to get a hearing soon. He is confident that if the bill gets past the Legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would be willing to sign it into law.
The bill was supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including West Michigan representatives David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, and Mary Whiteford, R-Allegan.
A spokesperson for the DNR said the organization has no comment or opinion on the House bill.