Kirtland's warbler

A Kirtland’s Warbler.

The robin has been Michigan’s official state bird since 1931. That declaration followed a 1929 Michigan Audubon Society vote that attracted 190,000 ballots and resulted in two birds taking the lead: the robin and the chickadee. The robin won the nod.

But not everyone was happy then, and not everyone has been happy since. There has been unrest in the nest. Some Michiganders think it’s time for a change. We suspect it will be difficult to push the robin out of the nest.

A bill was introduced in the state legislature in 2000 to make the chickadee the state bird. It didn’t take off. A 2003 bill sought to make the Kirtland’s warbler the state bird. That effort also didn’t get off the ground. Bill Rapai, chairman of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, still thinks there’s a strong case for change, according to a story last month in The Detroit News.

But Michigan loves the robin. Many consider it a cheerful sign of spring’s approach.

Not just Michiganders love the robin. It’s also the state bird in Connecticut. Wisconsin has two state birds: the robin and the mourning dove. Rapai believes an exclusive relationship would be preferable. That lets out the chickadee, which already is the state bird of Maine and Massachusetts.

Many Michiganders also love the cardinal, but it is the state bird of seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

Chickadee enthusiasts say the robin abandons Michigan in the winter, but the chickadee stays here all year, so it deserves recognition for geographic loyalty.

The Kirtland’s warbler doesn’t stick around through our blustery cold season. They winter in the Bahamas, 1,500 miles south of the Great Lakes. But they overwhelmingly choose Michigan as their summer home. Only a handful of mating pairs have been sighted in Wisconsin. Most all of the estimated 4,600 birds that exist today breed and live in Crawford, Ogemaw and Oscoda counties. A few have been sighted in Kalkaska and Gladwin counties.

Growing human population in Michigan’s heartland put pressure on the habitat required by Kirtland’s warblers, and there were only an estimated 1,000 birds in 1961, which fell to about 400 birds in 1971, and to only about 330 in 1987. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service included the Kirtland’s warbler on the list of endangered species in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. The Kirtland’s warbler was on the initial list of endangered and threatened species when the Endangered Species Act became federal law in 1973.

Conservation efforts have helped the population rebound, and in July 2018 the Kirtland’s warbler was proposed for de-listing.

The bird’s strong preference for Michigan summers, combined with its recovery from near extinction, do provide a powerful case for state birdhood.

But Michiganders love the robin, and knocking it off the throne would require a strong effort.

Then again, if population delicacy and recovery is the criteria, perhaps the piping plover might want a shot, too. And what about our mallards? Seagulls? Are Canada geese allowed to campaign in this country?

Whatever the outcome of this campaign, the opportunity to debate the merits of traveling birds, sharing birds with other states or giving birds the nest-test provides a welcome flight from our usual fodder. May the best bird win.