What Kirtland’s warbler teaches on growth

My kids came home from school last week sharing stories of the Kirtland’s warbler. They recently had a lesson that talked about the bird that nearly vanished a number of years ago. Remember the little bird? When I was in elementary school many moons ago, we also heard about the endangered song bird and its unusual story.

The Kirtland’s warbler is a small bird that has grey-brown feathers on most of its body, with a bright yellow throat and underbelly. It spends winters in the Bahamas and migrates to areas like Northeast Michigan for the summer. In the 1970s, the population was recorded to have a mere few hundred of the birds left. Now, there are an estimated 5,000.

Because of efforts to reestablish habitat, the bird is no longer nearly extinct, and has a really fantastic comeback story.

What makes the bird’s story most interesting is the variety of factors that must come together to create the habitat necessary to sustain and regenerate their species. In order to thrive, the warbler needs fire. Kirtland’s warblers breed in stands of young Jack Pine. In order for jack pine trees to reproduce, they need to feel the heat of fire. Their pine cones don’t open without high temperatures.

If nature was left to be nature, the occasional naturally occurring forest fire would create the necessary circumstance for jack pines to repopulate. But, without forest fires, certain controlled methods of forest management had to be introduced to ensure that young jack pines were planted to serve as breeding habitat for the birds. The efforts have been successful, as the birds are now flourishing.

That is an interesting story, where Mother Nature imparts lessons that are applicable beyond the forest.

As someone who is out in front in the community because of my job, I attract a lot of attention, whether I want it or not. A friend called it the “lightning rod” phenomenon. People who are fired up about something don’t usually take the time to see who is involved or learn more about the issue, they just fire away at the first person they see. Sometimes, as a lightning rod, you are delivered interesting, good stuff, sometimes not so much. As such, I spend a fair amount of time orienteering through fires I didn’t start because I have no one else there to put them out. The Chippewa Hills Pathway issue from five years ago is one example. I’m getting better at accepting that that is part of my duty, to serve the community in my role as a member of community development, but it isn’t always comfortable to step into those fires.

While I sometimes sit and wonder why people think I am in any way qualified to help them tackle those issues, I realize that exposure to those fires is growing me into a more resilient person. After a particularly long challenge within the community a few years ago that I was asked to help with, a close friend said that perhaps I’m being called to handle those types of things because the challenges are forging me into someone who will be stronger and better prepared for what is yet to come.

We all experience that to some degree in our personal lives, as well. Sometimes, the lesson is simply saying, ‘This is not a fire I’m going to fight.’ Or, it could be a scenario where negative things will happen if someone doesn’t step in to bring clarity to a situation. Either way, we are all tested by those fires of life for a reason.

We don’t normally think of fire as being beneficial. In the case of the Kirtland warbler, it is critical. If we started looking at challenges or experiences that are outside of our comfort zone as fires that are forging us into something renewed, how different would our lives be?

If the fires of a forest can force the growth of a mighty tree like a jack pine, then imagine what the adversity in your life is doing to you right now. You can’t ignore the fire. It is there for a reason. Be a heat seeker. Accept the fire and learn the lesson. Let the heat open you up. Work through it knowing that, if you keep moving forward, you will make it to the other side.

What is on the other side of the fire? Growth, evolution, and progress — an environment where you can more fully thrive and help others do the same.

Mary Beth Stutzman’s “Inspiring A-Town” runs biweekly on Tuesdays. Follow Mary Beth on Twitter @mbstutz.