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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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Nathan Leopold's Warbler

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Knowledge about the Kirtland's Warbler proceeded at an excruciatingly slow pace through the rest of the nineteenth century. On January 9, 1879, Charles B. Cory collected a specimen of the Kirtland's Warbler on Andros Island in the Bahamas, more or less confirming the winter home of the species. Since that time, at least seventy-one specimens have been collected in the islands, most of them before 1900.

For many years the breeding territory of the species was unknown. Then in 1903 E. H. Frothingham, of the University of Michigan Museum, and a companion, T. G. Gale, while trout fishing in the jack-pine area of Crawford and Oscoda Counties in north-central Michigan, "found numbers of an unfamiliar warbler in full song." This according to Arthur C. Bent in Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers.

Gale collected one of the birds and on his return to Ann Arbor, their colleague Norman A. Wood identified it as a Kirtland's Warbler and he wasted no time in heading north to investigate. On July 8, not far from the Au Sable River, he located a nest with two young and one egg, and the next day he found a nest with five well-grown young in it. One of the great mysteries of American ornithology had finally been solved.

Not long after this-during the early 20s-our story takes a bizarre twist and once again we wonder if the old philosopher, Lichtenberg, might have been right when he said we observe nature through a human mirror.

Each summer a sensitive young man from Chicago, son of a wealthy family, visited the estate of his best friend's family in the Petoskey, Michigan area. These idyllic summers spanned the years from his sixteenth to nineteenth birthdays. He was already an enthusiastic birder, a member of the American Ornithologists Union and the Wilson Club. His name was Nathan Leopold and his friend was Richard Loeb, their names interminably linked to the 1924 kidnapping and slaying of 14-year-old Bobby Franks.

The victim's body was found stuffed into a culvert under a railroad embankment at Wolf Lake, a spot where Leopold sometimes went birding. The two boys were defended by the noted attorney, Clarence Darrow, who convinced the jury to come up with a verdict of "life plus 99," rather than death by execution.

Before that awful deed, Nathan had read accounts of the Kirtland's Warbler breeding in half a dozen counties of the north-central portion of the of the state, some of the nesting sites no more than a 30 minute drive from the Loeb summer home. He borrowed a car and without too much trouble found individuals of the rare species on territory along the Au Sable River. He returned to the nesting grounds a number of times, sometimes spending all day observing and studying the birds. The year was 1923.

Few life history studies of the Kirtland's warblers had been written up to that time so he filled several notebooks with his notes and he took pictures of the birds with his trusty Kodak camera. He realized this might be the ornithological opportunity of a lifetime. Indeed, that proved to be the case. In 1924, a 14-page article, The Kirtland's warbler in its summer home, was published under his name in the Auk, the prestigious ornithological publication of the AOU.

Excerpts from his paper can be read in the Dover edition of Bent's Life Histories of North American Wood Warblers. "The food consists largely of centipedes, worms, and caterpillars," Leopold wrote. "However, the birds also eat deer {flies} and horse flies, grasshoppers, crickets, white and dusky millers, with relish . . . " and he added, "they also eat or drink the white pitchlike fluid which exudes from the branches of the pine." Bent reports that Leopold found the males of at least two pairs much tamer than the females, and "one male actually ate from his hand."

The young Leopold was extraordinarily perceptive in speculating that the brown-headed cowbird was the most important enemy of the Kirtland's Warbler, a conclusion that Bent himself doubted. Yet, in another 60 or 70 years, Leopold's foreboding was to prove all too true. In recent times, parasitism by the cowbird has been recognized as a serious threat to the survival of the warblers. The Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Audubon Society, initiated a cowbird control project in 1972. Since then, the warblers have fared substantially better.

Some final words about Nathan Leopold. He spent more than 33 years at Stateville Prison, outside of Joliet, Illinois. In 1936 his friend, Richard Loeb, was stabbed to death in a prison shower room by another inmate. During the World War II years Leopold was one of a small group of prisoners who volunteered to be infected with malaria as part of a study attempting to overcome that disease. He also was instrumental in establishing a prison high school for inmates.

After Governor Adlai Stevenson commuted his 99-year sentence to 85 years, and upon his fifth clemency appeal before the State Pardon and Parole Board, Leopold was paroled in 1958. Public sentiment was mostly favorable to the granting of the parole, in some part due to the best-selling book, Compulsion, a fictionalized account of the crime by Myer Levin.

After his release, Leopold worked for a year as a medical technician in a charity hospital, part of a mission operated by the Church of the Brethren near Castaner, Puerto Rico. He took with him many books and classical records he had collected while in prison. While working at the clinic, he obtained a master's degree in social medicine from the University of Puerto Rico.

Later, after the early provisions of his parole were met, he married Trudi Feldman, the widow of a Puerto Rican physician, and obtained a new job at the Puerto Rican Health Department as a social worker involved in parasitic research. His IQ was over 200. He and Trudi lived in an antique-filled apartment in San Juan's Santuree section. A framed photograph of Clarence Darrow, the man who gave him a second chance at life, was displayed on a table.

When he wasn't working, he traveled about the island in his English Ford familiarizing himself with the island's birds and the local flora. To visitors he would point out mango trees, giant ferns, orange-blossomed bacare and yagrumo trees; drive them through remnant rain forest on the higher slopes, past scenic waterfalls until they would finally arrive at El Yunque where they could look down on dazzling white beaches far below.

In 1963 his Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was published. He died in 1971, many years and miles from the pine barrens of his beloved Kirtland's Warblers, but really not all that far from their winter home.

Sometimes I wonder why he didn't choose the Bahamas as the place to spend his last years. It would have added a nice symmetry to his life. Even today little is known about the warbler's habits and distribution on those islands where it is said to spend its winters. Maybe there just wasn't any job available for him there. Too bad.

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