Michigan is home to hundreds of birds, but the sad reality is that several of them are endangered, making them among the rarest birds in the United States.
If you’re looking to do some birding, these Michigan birds are truly special. Perhaps the rarest bird of Michigan is Kirtland’s Warbler, but arguably the King Rail might be more rare.
After that, the three most rare Michigan birds are the Piping Plover, Henslow’s Sparrow, and the Short Eared Owl.
By the time you finish this article, you’ll know where to look for these birds and what has caused them to be so rare in the first place.
Each has issues unique to their different circumstances, so seeing them is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The King Rail
Get some waders because you’re going to have to track this bird down in wetlands. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula they are specifically along the coast.
The Michigan National Features Inventory has recorded very few instances of breeding over the last 10 years. If you can find this bird it will be the crown sighting and you should really report it.
It’s a vase shaped bird with a slim neck that widens down into a slender body. Similar to a heron it has reedy but shorter legs than one.
The torso is olive brown on the underbelly with dark gray plumage on the back, and black and white on the flanks.It has a long bill and long toes. Females are usually smaller than males and they mate for life.
The peak season for finding this rare Michigan bird is from April 15th to July 1st. Anytime sooner or later than that might get rather tricky.
The kids follow the mom around just after birth, then take off for their first flight two months into their life. You might catch them if you take your time and watch during June.
Be quiet! You might startle this little fellow as he frequents his pine trees. This little guy is so special he even has a Wildlife Refuge in his honor. Try booking a tour with Kirtland’s Warbler Tours.
To spot them, the little males are rather large for a warbler. They have steel-gray plumage on their backs and sides, with black streaks on the wings.
The underbelly and throat are yellow, plus they have little black streaks from their eyes to their beaks. Females are grayish with black streaks, a much more pale underbelly, and white eye crescents.
Kirtland’s Warbler needs scrubby jack pine to thrive. Since landowners have prevented wildfires in favor of protecting their property, the forest hasn’t had a normal cycle in ages to where the shrubby undergrowth can come up after a fire.
With proper forest management the birds have started to return but before that the situation was really bad.
Back in the 70’s Brown-headed cowbirds started laying their eggs in Warbler nests. The poor parents had to raise too many eggs to handle, causing exhaustion and stress.
Overall the Cowbirds parasitism hurt Kirtland’s Warbler by decreasing their rate of production. Before long, this bird was losing habitat and suffered from a declining birth rate at the same time.
By clear cutting and carefully regrowing Warbler habitat over 200,000 acres, the Fish and Wildlife Service started bringing their habitat back.
Kirtland’s Warbler now has 2,300 nesting pairs in Michigan, which exceeded initial expectations immensely.
Now for some fun facts every birder should know. Before 1995 the Warbler only nested in Michigan’s southern peninsula. Now the tides have turned! They have been spotted in the Upper Peninsula.
Their diet is mostly insects but they have a sweet tooth for blueberries. Could you imagine seeing them eating a blueberry?
To add to the image it’s tail will bob up and down while it forages for food. It’s totally adorable.
Plover’s look like killbirds because they are related to them! They are a rare species that live by the shoreline so a natural defense is their plumage.
They look sand-colored on their backs with a white belly. With the glare from the sun they blend right in! They prefer beaches with lots of gravel and they have very distinctive markings.
A black band that looks like a unibrow runs across their forehead between their eyes while a black band that looks like a scarf runs around their neck.
They frequent the Great Lakes during the mating season so look around for some adorable birdies during the Spring!
It isn’t just their plumage that gives these quirky birds away – It’s their habits! They exhibit flight displays to find a mate, territory defense when they puff up at a trespassing bird in their territory, and scraping.
Male Piping Plovers scrape nests out of the sand trying to attract a mate who notices the hard work they accomplish.
Unlike Kirkland’s Warbler there’s only 75 mating pairs in the region. Keep an eye out for a rare sighting of this Michigan bird! By August they migrate so you won’t have very long.
If you’re lucky, you can see them make a mass migration south to the Bahamas. Then you can picture them in mud flats and more sand beaches with plenty of gravel. They depend on the waterfront for food, dining on mollusks, worms, insects – even crustaceans.
As soon as the birds arrive in Michigan in March, conservation specialists observe them keenly from a distance.
They rope off nesting areas because those are very vulnerable to getting stepped on. Plus they put a cage above the nest to prevent predators like foxes or raccoons from disturbing them.
Between nest protection and breeding, hopefully this bird will make a comeback! Their global population currently stands at 6,510, which makes them very rare indeed.
Henslow’s Sparrow probably started to decline due to habitat destruction, since a lot of their grasslands get converted for agriculture.
Look for them in weedy Michigan meadows for starters, keeping an eye open for dead weeds, damp areas, and generally sloppy old pastures.
You can spot the males belting out in song pretty easily but it won’t happen that often. They perch in the field on top of a tall weed, either attracting a mate or warning that danger is close by in the territory.
They have white underbellies, pale yellow bodies, and hazel brown wings. On top of all this coloration are black specks that look like dashes, kind of like the dash marks on Kirtland’s Warblers.
The birds mostly scavenge on the ground for their food. You should see them run or, well, dart quickly away from danger. Since they are pretty secretive and stay close to the ground, if they sense danger they try to run away. On foot.
Like your typical owl the Short-Eared Owl preys on field mice and other small rodents.
It relies on its fantastic eyesight to spot it’s food from a distance, so for instance it could easily see Henslow’s Sparrow on a regular basis despite these small sparrows hiding so carefully.
They have practically the same grassland habitat as each other! Something you might not expect about this owl is it’s quite active during the day. Unlike most owls it’s not nocturnal. Sure makes it easier for birders!
You might see it swoop toward the kill, gliding gracefully over the open grassland. Yet, the Short-Eared Owl courtship ritual is the real treat.
The male will rapidly hoot, then dive, then clap its wings together loudly below its body! It’s a real sight to behold since it can move its wings quickly in a series of 10 rapid claps.
It will use this same wing clap to frighten off intruders who threaten the female and her nest. The male will hunt for food but bring it to the female, who feeds it to the babies.
Much like Henderson’s Sparrow they nest on the ground, one of the only owls in the world to do so. Their greatest asset against detection is their coloration.
Naturally brown and speckled they blend right in with the undergrowth. In some worst case scenarios, when their nest is threatened they will fake having a broken wing, meant to be a distraction so they appear to be bait for the predator.
There are only six owl species in the world who don’t live in a forested habitat, this being one of them.
The ultimate satisfaction for a birder is to catch them when they are all together. Sometimes, up to 200 of these birds will nest within feet of each other.
Imagine hundreds of extremely rare, even endangered birds together. Breathtaking. Sometimes the owls will migrate as far as 1,200 miles over open water with no place to rest.
It explains how they have been found in every continent in the world except for two: Antarctica and Australia.
Migrant Loggerhead Shrike
If you see the Loggerhead Shrike in Michigan it’s probably a once in a lifetime experience. Pesticide contamination like DDE (different from DDT), roadway mortality (cars), and slow habitat degradation over time are equal culprits for the endangerment of this special bird.
Your window for spotting the Shrike is very small because this bird migrates through Michigan in the fall. One of the most recent sightings was near Whitefish Point, west of Sault. St. Marie.
Mysteriously, other rare sightings of this bird have been known to happen in the Fall season, but only one bird at a time. Unlike other birds, these sightings have been extremely rare.
The Shrike hunts first from a distance, eyeing prey from a nearby tree. Then it uses its hooked bill to kill, usually small rodents but sometimes a grasshopper, small bird, or amphibian. It’s diet has earned it the nickname the “butcher bird”.
Then the Shrike sort of plays with its food… it impales the prey on a barbed fence or thorn, returning for it later.
The males courtship ritual is more simple than other birds, where the male will hunt for food and feed the female.
Both genders build their nest in a thorny bush or thick shrub to utilize the natural defense. Plant down, rootlets, twigs, grass and more go into building the nest in a cup shape.
Barn Owls are rare in general, facing habitat degradation but also a naturally low birth rate.
Usually they are from Detroit south but are rarely seen north of there. Although they live year round in Michigan, they are easily one of the rarest birds of Michigan.
Their night vision is amazing but so is their ability to hunt using their keen hearing. This hearing rivals all other animals in the world. It’s so good.
They share the owl family trait of silent wings, drifting through the night without a trace. Your best bet for spotting them may be their distinctive white face disk, which is how they hear.
If you’ve ever been to a bird rehabilitation center, you may have seen one of these owls. Their white face and slender brown body, with distinctive talons, gives them away.
Don’t be fooled! Some of these owls have red underbellies rather than the usual white. Those very talons reveal the predator that they are, exclusively carnivores.
Unlike Short-Eared Owls a Barn Owl will exclusively hunt at night for small mammals. They swallow their prey whole, later regurgitating owl pellets.
Those are the fur and bones from their victims that couldn’t be digested for nutritional value.
Males hover in front of females, dangling their feet to attract them. It’s very strenuous showing great strength to do so.
Rarely males and females can have more than one mate, not monogamous like other birds can be. Fields and marshes are where Barn Owls build their nests.
Despite maintaining a stable population in Michigan these owls still require constant protection. Fish and Wildlife Services still maintains their habitat, enabling them to find the food they need to survive and space to nest.
Twice a year a female will lay three to 11 eggs, but that is entirely dependent on how much prey they can find. Poor nutrition will affect these birds just as it does humans.
Michigan truly is a birder’s paradise with such rare birds to be found. Some hotspots to get you started (according to the Audubon Society) will be the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory,
Pointe Mouillee State Game Area, Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve, Warren Dunes State Park, Kirtland’s Warbler Tours,
Tawas Point State Park, Belle Isle Park, Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area. After spotting at least one of these birds you will have had a once in a lifetime experience.
Each of these rare Michigan birds is extremely unique, sometimes found in the Southern Peninsula, other times Northern. No matter what we hope you will find wonder as you search for these birds.