Bird Town: Detroit Bird Conservation Efforts on the Rise

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Nature and industry meet on the Detroit River. Photo: Howard Meyerson.

By Howard Meyerson

Call Detroit Michigan what you will: Motor City, Hockey Town, Tiger Town or Motown. Increasingly, it is becoming a Bird Town. Greening efforts all across its urban landscape, from tree plantings in parks and overgrown lots to urban gardens and wetland restorations—all are improving living conditions for birds.

“Detroit is a hotbed for birding,” notes Greg Norwood, biologist for the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge (DRIWR) which encompasses 10,577 acres of quality habitat along the Detroit River and western Lake Erie. Those include coastal marshes, islands, wetlands and shoreline parks. “This is an internationally recognized good birding area because of its geography. We have a world renowned hawk migration and a really significant waterfowl migration here.”

Established in 2001 and managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service, DRIWR it is the only international wildlife refuge in North America. Its purpose is preserving habitat that otherwise would be lost, including stopover habitat for migrating birds and waterfowl.  Several hundred thousand Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures come through each fall headed south. Giant flocks of Tundra Swans, Redhead Ducks, Scaup and Canvasbacks also move through during their west-to-east migration between nesting areas on the North American prairies and wintering grounds on the Atlantic seaboard.

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The refuge includes 10,577 acres. Photo: Howard Meyerson.

Refuge staffers also work in concert with bird and habitat conservation organizations to eliminate invasive plants that have crept in along the river, according to Norwood. That work often directly benefits birds. Phragmites, for example, is so prolific that where it takes over, diverse plant communities disappear. In turn, the numbers of bird species that use the landscape drop dramatically.

“That means there is no longer a symphony of bird sounds in the morning,” Norwood explains. “Where you once had Moorhens nesting near Least Bitterns nesting near Rails nesting near Coots, you get a more generalist species that would nest in a ditch near a Wal-Mart. Red-winged Blackbirds do just fine in phragmites.”

Important Bird Areas

Detroit is also ground zero for several Important Bird Areas (IBA) an internationally recognized classification system developed by BirdLife International. The classification flags for natural resource and other conservation professionals that an area is important for birds.

One example is the 25,002-acre Detroit River IBA, home to Canvasback Ducks, American Coots, and Common Terns. It is one of ten globally significant IBAs in Michigan. Lake Erie Metropark, at 1,601 acres, is a state-significant IBA, home to 30 bird species. Lake St. Clair, St. Clair Flats, and Pointe Mouillee State Game Area in Monroe County are also state-level IBAs. More about each can be found online.

Just a few miles upstream from DRIWR, in the heart of Detroit at Belle Isle Park, work to improve nesting conditions for Common Terns has been underway since 2009. Common Terns are a state threatened species in Michigan and federal species of concern in the Great Lakes region. Michigan is one of several states where “nesting pairs have shown a precipitous decline throughout most of the 20th century,” Greg Norwood wrote in the 2011  Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas II, authoring the section about them.

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A Common Tern with chicks. Photo: USFWS.

Belle Isle was home to hundreds of nesting pairs in the 1960s. Thousands of nests could be found at that time all along the Detroit River on islands, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. By 2012 fewer than 200 nesting pairs were found. Their decline was caused by forests growing up on islands, predation, contamination, and competition with Ring-billed Gulls.

Tom Schneider, curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS), which partnered with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and DRIWR staff, is working to improve nesting conditions for Common Terns, which typically nest on sandy or gravelly beaches. The partners created 8,600 square feet of nesting habitat on the east end of Belle Isle in recent years. Schneider hopes eventually to have a large colony nesting on Belle Isle. To date, only six nests have been found there, and only a few chicks have been raised successfully.

“The biggest threat to nesting tern colonies are mink, Great-horned Owls, Black-crowned Night Herons, and/or snakes,” Schneider says. DZS is also monitoring Common Tern nest sites on the Grosse Isle Bridge and doing nest site restoration at lighthouses on Lake St. Clair, working with the Save our South Channel Lights organization.  More than 100 nesting pairs were found on the St. Clair Flats front range light in 2014 and 2015, according to Schneider.

DZS also partnered with others to reestablish ospreys in southeast Michigan, including regional metropark authorities, the Department of Natural Resources, and the nonprofit group Osprey Watch of southeast Michigan. Earlier work relocating osprey chicks over a ten-year period ending in 2007 resulted in observations of 48 nesting Osprey pairs in the region in 2015.

Turn off the Lghts

Detroit Audubon also has a hand in Detroit-area bird conservation work. Its members are involved in grassland restoration, tern monitoring, public education, and trying to make the city a safer place for birds. Rob Duchene, a retired Detroit school teacher and Audubon member, coordinates Project Safe Passage, a lights-out program that encourages building owners to turn lights off at night during spring and fall bird migrations to reduce bird/building collisions.

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Building owners in Detroit are encouraged to turn off their lights at night to reduce bird/building collisions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Fifteen to 20 government and corporate entities now participate, Duchene said. Audubon volunteers have gone out at dawn to circle buildings in downtown Detroit and Troy, a suburb of Detroit. They’ve found an assortment of dead birds, including Nashville and Tennessee Warblers, a Red-headed Woodpecker, Woodcock, White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Lincoln Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrows. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird found injured was sent to a professional rehabilitator. Duchene says total counts have not yet been compiled.

“We knew keeping lights on was killing birds, but we couldn’t actually prove it,” Duchene notes, in reference to resistance he encountered talking with some building owners. “So we initiated the bird collision surveys and we do them at dawn before the maintenance guys can sweep them up or before gulls pick them off.”

Detroit Audubon members are also working to improve grassland habitat at Oakwoods Metropark along the Huron River near Flat Rock, just northwest of DRIWR. They also monitor tern nesting activity along the Detroit River.

“Detroit is now experiencing a renaissance, and bird conservation work in Detroit is starting to gain momentum,” said Sara Cole, program coordinator for Detroit Audubon. “Everyone seems interested in promoting bird conservation and education. Detroit public school teachers are interested in incorporating birding packages into their curriculums, and the Detroit Institute of Art is interested in habitat restoration and promoting it.

“Personally, I am meeting with educators and kids in the area to promote bird conservation through education, getting them to notice birds, but also to be interested in conserving them.”


© 2016 Howard Meyerson

Appears in the Jack Pine Warbler, magazine of Michigan Audubon.

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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5 Responses to Bird Town: Detroit Bird Conservation Efforts on the Rise

  1. mfs686 says:

    I was on the lower river walleye fishing one year when the Turkey Vultures migrated through. Literally thousands of them. I had no idea so many came through the area.


    • mfs686: Thanks for your observation. I grew up in Detroit and don’t recall those migrations from my youth, but I’ve been told by many that they are pretty dramatic. I’m going to have to plan a trip down in fall – or maybe this spring.


      • mfs686 says:

        From what I was told by the staff at LEMP i was very lucky. They pile up at Jack Miner before they migrate through. I just happened to be out the day they all decided to leave.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Carlos E. says:

    This type of conservation is incredibly inspired and I had no idea Detroit was such a hub for birds. The story reminded me of something Chicago did a while back by setting aside an area in Lincoln Park as a nesting ground for the Illinois Night Heron. The entire restoration and reintroduction was a success, so I know big cities can do great environmental work when they want to. Great post! I’ll make sure to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carlos. If you do, be sure to also visit Belle Isle. It is an old park that has been recently taken over by Michigan’s state park system and is being refurbished. There is lots to see there and it’s a great birding spot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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