For the Birds Radio Program: Kirtland's Warbler
On November 10, 1793, Jared Potter Kirtland was born in Wallingford, Connecticut. Kirtland became a prominent physician, founding the Cleveland Medical College, and was also a recognized botanist and naturalist. But his greatest claim to fame arose on May 13, 1851, when his son-in-law, Charles Pease, shot a bird on Kirtland’s farm near Cleveland. Pease didn’t recognize it so he gave it to Kirtland, who didn’t recognize it either, so he gave it to his friend Spencer Baird, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird was the one who officially described the specimen, in an account published in 1852 in the Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. As the scientist who wrote the official description, Baird was authorized to name the new species, which he dubbed Kirtland’s Warbler in honor of his friend.
No one found a nesting Kirtland’s Warbler for over 50 more years—finally in 1903, the nesting grounds in jack pine forests in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula were discovered. During those 50 years, ornithologists took five more specimens of migrating Kirtland’s Warblers in Michigan and Ohio, and at least 71 specimens in the Bahamas during winter. Modern ornithologists have had a difficult time finding them in the Bahamas, and even today their precise winter habitat needs aren’t known. Beginning in 1951, Kirtland’s Warblers were censused in Michigan every decade. In 1951, there were 432 singing males, and in 1961, 502 But in 1971, the total plummeted to a mere 201. Since then, they’ve been monitored every year. Now the population is much higher, thanks in part to habitat management and a cowbird trapping program, and in part to a tragic 1980 fire that killed some people but maximized the amount of Kirtland’s Warbler nesting habitat as jack pines thrived in the aftermath. The 1999 census tallied 904 singing males, and the number wasn’t much lower this year when 891 were counted.
Dr. Kirtland’s fame wasn’t limited to this lovely bird of fire—his name was also given to a water snake, a fossil plant, a raspberry, and a strawberry. But by all accounts, he remained humble and kindly as his fame grew. An account of his life published in the Lakewood, Ohio, Sun Post included the following little story, which took place a few years after the Civil War.
One day a well-dressed Easterner rode up to view the Kirtland home and orchard, which attracted many visitors. Seeing an old man hoeing in overalls, the visitor called, “Is this the home of Professor Kirtland?” “It is,” came the reply. “Is Professor Kirtland at home?” “He is,” said the man with the hoe. “Well, my man, come and hold my horse,” ordered the stranger. The old man obeyed, whereupon the visitor walked through the Kirtland gate and knocked on the front door. It was opened by Dr. Kirtland’s daughter.
“Where can I find the renouned Professor Kirtland?” the Easterner asked. “He’s out there in the road holding somebody’s horse,” she replied.
Jared Potter Kirtland died on December 10, 1877, after a long, fruitful life. So many fascinating human beings from his time have been lost to history, but a little warbler will continue to fan the flames of Kirtland’s fame as long as people fan the flames that ensure jack pine cones will open, providing habitat for this rare and beautiful little bird.