Fighting The Loss Of Michigan's Birds

Aug 9, 2020

Shelters for grassland birds at SWMLC's Chipman Preserve near Galesburg, Michigan
Credit Andy Robins / WMUK

A new project could help reverse a sharp drop in the number of birds in southwest Michigan.


The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy won a $20,000 grant from the Cornell University Ornithology Lab. It's using it to track bird populations on its nature preserves in the region, and to restore habitats on some of its properties.

The Conservancy's director of stewardship, Mitch Lettow, says a study published last year in the journal Science found that one out of every four birds in Michigan has disappeared over the last 50 years.

Mitch Lettow
Credit Andy Robins / WMUK

"For grassland birds, it's two-out-of-four birds. And for some species like the eastern meadowlark, which has a beautiful song, that bird has seen what would be the analogue of three-out-of-every-four meadowlarks going away since 1970."

The loss of birds may not be obvious to most people because it's happening so slowly. Lettow says that's part of the problem.

"It's not a one fell swoop. It's not a one big thing happening. It's this slow erosion of habitats and these issues sort of accumulating. And so, I think that's the danger: that's there's no alarm; there's no 'sky is falling.'"

But Lettow says the grant will support efforts to turn that around by monitoring of bird populations and restoring the habitats they need to survive.

"The grant is also helping us build capacity to keep an eye on this stuff, and not just build it and hope they will come, but build it and check and see that they did come. And, if the didn't, build it differently."

Lettow says restoration work at a preserve along Lake Michigan near South Haven is already having a positive effect on birds. It involved controlled burns to remove invasive plants.

"We found that those fields, in particular, where we had those points, were a magnet for this bird that's been in decline called a bobolink."

The project began in May 2020 when two graduate students from Western Michigan University's Gill Biology Lab surveyed birds at several of the Conservancy's preserves. Lettow says they recorded their data using the eBird app developed by Cornell that's popular with birdwatchers.

"Lots of people use it," Lettow says. "And that information can be instantly shared with the Conservancy, and we can see almost instantaneously what birds are using our habitats and make assessments that way."

The Conservancy is monitoring birds on 700 acres of its land in southwest Michigan. And it plans habitat restoration, including the removal of invasive plants, on about a third of its preserves over the next year.